Revisiting the Black Panthers


Last summer members of The Roots performed a fiery tribute to Ornette Coleman, a free-jazz saxophone legend. With Vernon Reid on guitar and David Murray on saxophone, the show featured several generations of inventive African-American musicians on a London stage. The result was largely exciting, occasionally long-winded and certainly momentous.

In a similar spirit of homage, the same musicians returned to London’s Barbican on September 11th, this time to celebrate the legacy of the Black Panthers.

The full blog post, on the Tongues on Fire: A Tribute to the Black Panthers performance in London, is at INTELLIGENT LIFE, and also continues here, after the jump.

Photo: archie4oz

Founded in Oakland, California in 1966, this revolutionary African-American organisation was created by those who had lost faith in the power of non-violence to face down police brutality. At the time the FBI labelled the group the greatest threat to America’s internal security. The party ended up disbanding in the 1980s.

For this show the group called themselves Tongues on Fire and included Corey Glover, a vocalist from the band Living Colour, along with Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets, a spoken-word collective that began in New York in the late 1960s and is generally credited as a precursor to politicised hip-hop. Together they performed compositions that blended funk, soul, rock, hip hop, reggae, and free-form jazz. As the band played, collages of images created by Emory Douglas, longtime Minister of Culture for the Panthers, were displayed across three large film screens inside the auditorium at London’s Barbican Centre.

Douglass’ drawings, now over 30 years old, are still powerful. His stylised images of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger floated across the screens alongside those of Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, who founded the Panthers. Phrases such as “US govmt stop killing black people now”, “kill the pigs”, and “community control of the police” scrolled across those images.

When asked how he hoped the audience would respond to the performance, Oyewole, a spoken-word artist, said, “They’re people. They understand the problems we had and still have. And the Panther movement is well-documented. These people have ears that can understand.”

More Intelligent Life asked David Murray to elaborate on the performance, the music and the legacy of the Black Panther Party.

More Intelligent Life: Why did the members of Tongues on Fire decide to get together?

David Murray: We were asked by producer Valérie Malot, who had a long association with The Last Poets and Living Colour. The Roots and I met in the 80’s and I played on one of their earlier records. Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole sent four poems each, which I observed and edited for three weeks before I wrote a note. Eighty hours later, I had finished the eight compositions.

MIL: How much time was spent preparing and rehearsing?

DM: The concert in London was the result of one studio rehearsal in New York, a
rehearsal in London and an extended sound-check prior to the concert.

MIL: What do the Panthers and the artwork of Emory Douglas mean to you?

DM: The history of the Panthers was part of my maturation in the Bay Area growing up. The Black Churches, The Nation of Islam, R&B scene, Blues scene and the Hippie Movement were also were also integral to my development as a musician. The Panthers are pillars of the neighbourhood of which I lived in Berkeley. The work of Emory Douglas was extremely visible throughout the scene.

MIL: What specific aspects of the Black Panther legacy are Tongues on Fire
celebrating, and why?

DM: The positive aspects come to mind when reflecting on the Panthers. The food and childcare programmes. The gathering and self-awareness rallies. The Panther Church. Getting young people interested in organising communities and helping people.

MIL: What are the most relevant attributes of the Black Panthers to people in 2010?

DM: It’s important that black people today from different countries unite instead of
just functioning with those from their specific ethnic and tribal communities. In Paris only a few years ago, after the suburbs fires, they formed a black coalition for the first time. The Black Panther party was part of that.

MIL: What does the legacy of the Black Panthers mean to you?

The Panthers were a transparent organisation, which was advanced at the time.
Their willingness to bear arms was a gutsy tactic which challenged the US constitution. Hopefully their experience will inspire the next generation of African people in the world led by our highly intelligent leader, Barack Obama, and other prominent leaders will encourage our people to move ahead and prosper.

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