ABIODUN OYEWOLE is a poet, author, teacher, and a founding member of the American music and spoken-word group The Last Poets, which laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip-hop.
Abiodun Oyewole was born Charles Davis in Cincinnati, Ohio and grew up in Queens, New York. Listening to his parents’ jazz and gospel records and studying Langston Hughes and other great poets in school helped nurture Oyewole’s love of poetry. His mother taught him to “throw his voice” by making him recite the Lord’s Prayer in their basement so that she could hear him in the kitchen. When he was fifteen years old, Oyewole and a friend went into a Yoruban Temple in Harlem out of curiosity. The Yoruba priest performed a ceremony and gave him the name, “Abiodun Oyewole.” As he began reading about the Yoruba gods and the significance of one’s ancestors, Oyewole felt a deep spiritual connection to the religion that continues to this day.
On May 19, 1968, the anniversary of Malcolm X’s birthday, Oyewole, David Nelson and Gylan Kain read poetry in tribute to Malcolm X at a memorial for him, and the group was born. The group’s message, deeply rooted in Black Nationalism, quickly became recognized within the African American community. By 1970, The Last Poets were signed by jazz producer Alan Douglas and released their first album, which includes their classic poem “Niggers are Scared of Revolution.” Their spoken word albums preceded politically-laced rhythm and blues projects, such as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and foreshadowed the work of hard-hitting rap groups like Public Enemy and Dead Prez. The Last Poets, along with the artist Gil Scott-Heron, are credited for having had a profound effect on the development of hip-hop music.
Oyewole was forced to leave The Last Poets after being sentenced to four years in a North Carolina prison for larceny. While serving two and half years of his sentence he attended a nearby college and earned his B.A. in biology. After he completed his BA in communications at Shaw University, Oyewole returned to New York and worked briefly at Columbia University in New York City. He would work at a number of learning institutions and eventually earned an MA in education at Columbia University, and became a Columbia Charles H. Revson Fellow in 1989. When Oyewole rejoined The Last Poets during its 1990s resurgence, he co-authored, with Umar Bin Hassan, ON A MISSION: SELECTED POEMS AND A HISTORY OF THE LAST POETS (Henry Holt, 1996).
During the course of his fifty year career and his long affiliation with The Last Poets, Oyewole is one of several poets credited for liberating American poetry by creating open, vocal, spontaneous, energetic and uncensored vernacular verse that paved the way for spoken word and hip-hop. He has dedicated his craft to retro-acting the perils of poverty, racism, and uplifting his people. Over the years, Oyewole has collaborated on more than a dozen albums and several books. The Last Poets (with Umar Bissan) would record Holy Terror (1993), The Time Has Come (1997), Understand What Black Is (2018), and Transcending Toxic Times (2019).
In 2014, Oyewole began publishing with 2Leaf Press, beginning with BRANCHES OF THE TREE OF LIFE, a comprehensive volume of poems written from 1969-2013, many of them never before published. In 2017, he edited BLACK LIVES HAVE ALWAYS MATTERED, A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS, POEMS AND PERSONAL NARRATIVES, which challenges readers to confront long-held values and beliefs about black lives, as well as white privilege and fragility, as it surveys the historical and contemporary ravages of racism and its persistence of structural inequality. Published in 2018, THE BEAUTY OF BEING, A COLLECTION OF FABLES, SHORT STORIES AND ESSAYS is Oyewole’s debut collection of prose. He writes frankly about his experience as a young poet and activist, and provides life lessons with fables and a fascinating travelogue that promotes resilience and self-care to his readers. His forthcoming poetry collection, NAKED, will publish in October 2020.
Oyewole released his first studio album of poetry, 25 Years in 1996. He released two albums of songs, Gratitude (Sons Rising Entertainment, 2014), and Love Has No Season (2014), co-produced by Derrick Jordan, which features Oyewole’s rich melodic baritone voice set to music.
With all the work Oyewole has done, perhaps his greatest legacy is “Sundays @ 110,” where every Sunday for the past thirty years he has opened his home to feed his fellow artists with food for thought, body and soul. During these sessions, he critiques, shares life experiences and a love of poetry with poets, writers and musicians from around the world.
Oyewole continues to write poetry (almost everyday), and travels around the world performing poetry, teaching workshops, and giving lectures on poetry, history and politics.