On Tuesday evening, the family of Jalal Mansur Nurridin, 74, released a statement describing his death, writing that "Jalal slipped quietly away this evening into the arms of Allah," and asked that we use the last ten days of Ramadan to make dua for him. Nurridin lead the best-known iteration of the legendary Last Poets, a spoken word and percussionist collective formed on Malcolm X's birthday and that, at its best, embodied the spirit of Malcom as street hustler, soldier for the people and revolutionary sage — none more so than the Brooklyn-born Jalal, the Godfather of Rap. Lightnin' Rod. The Schoolyard Bard.
Since I began seeing Twitter-sized tributes on my timeline Tuesday, I've played the epic, 31-minute album Hustler's Convention, from 1973, about two dozen times. In this era of constant, confusing chatter, I've been thinking about The Last Poets and their cutting, singular, clarity. Hustler's Convention doesn't make me think about hip-hop as much as it makes me think of my daddy, who used to blast Jalal's rhymes in his mint-green '72 Oldsmobile 88 as he drove around Belle Isle in the humid summer, back when Detroit was black and proud and loud. I was a pre-schooler, but I rode in the front seat — not a back seat booster — and remember my father spitting out whatever he was drinking from his red plastic cup when I asked him why Eskimo p***y is mighty cold. I remember thinking about the kitten I'd coaxed from underneath a neighbor's car in February, and the rabbit fur coat I'd worn to church that Easter in April. I remember thinking I might know how to help Eskimo p***y warm up. My father was a veteran of the U.S.'s horrific and doomed attempt to occupy Vietnam — he probably never once considered censoring The Last Poets' "Black Soldier" from my tiny, wide-open ears. I believed black people were always as free and flowing and sure and slick as my daddy and his friends in the 1970s in Detroit, where they strolled the streets like they owned the city.
My father was not a respectable Negro. He and his friends called each other's outfits "cold" and had nicknames like "Pinky" and "Slick" — I thought my father's name was "Soul" until I registered for ninth grade. Jalal became Lightnin' Rod to give us Hustler's Convention, which documented a full 24 hours in the life of Sport and Spoon (and the 12-year bid they got hit with after a shootout with the cops). Lightnin' Rod's story about Spoon and Sport's night of high stakes gambling reminded me that my father's friend, Pinky, earned her nickname because she used a taffy tablecloth to cover the card table in her fuschia-colored basement, and on gambling night her fridge was always stacked with red Faygo and Pink Champale. The not-going-to-church grown-ups would gather at her house most Saturday nights, and us kids would use her living room to pretend we were on Soul Train.
I've been thinking lots about black cities, and how mine is disappearing. How early-'90s black flight to the suburbs, to flee failing schools and collapsing infrastructure, feels worse than the late-'60s white flight that rendered Detroit ours. How my once-black city opened a major sports stadium in gentrified downtown, built by a corporate welfare family, and christened it with a week of performances by Trump supporting, Confederate flag-flying Kid Rock. I've been thinking about independent black voices in an era where we're being forced to defend America from itself. Where black men in tailored navy suits sit on CNN, defending the FBI from the GOP like WTF.
The Last Poets' first album with Jalal at the helm was This Is Madness. He was known then as Alafía Pudím, and it is his voice that opens the album: "Blues ain't no new news about who's been abused." Indeed, the blues were always about more than black suffering; the blues were boat-sized cars and public barbecues and drum circles and sweaty basements where our drunk parents played the grownup dozens, dressed to the nines in primary colors in their own damn city.
I mourn it all. And am forever grateful for the big, black life of Jalal Nurridin.
dream hampton is currently producing a series of essays about Detroit through a grant from the Surdna Foundation.