Umar Bin Hassan was born in Akron, Ohio, into a poor black worker’s family. Already as a youngster he dreamed of escaping his family’s lot and getting more out of life than slaving for the white man at the local rubber mill. So he sold his little sister’s record player to buy himself a bus ticket for New York City, where he joined The Last Poets, a group of black poets spreading a militant political message akin to that of the Black Panthers and Malcom X.
New York very nearly became Umar Bin Hassan’s death. Of course, there was poetry, the passionate performances of The Last Poets, and there was bebop, the music of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, whom he revered and who influenced his poems. But the ‘demons’ of drug abuse – as he called them – got him into their power and drove him out into the streets. He wandered from crackhouse to crackhouse, hustling, dealing, shooting up, until his sister finally came to his rescue and took him into her Connecticut home.
He succeeded in kicking his crack habit and in regaining his zest for life. One day his little nephew played a tape recording of a hiphop band named Tribe Called Quest, who had, without his knowledge, set one of his own poems to music. The new ganstarap was trying to link up with The Last Poets. Such rappers as Ice Cube and Chuck D. of Public Enemy sought inspiration with them, and Umar now felt he should return to New York and continue his work with The Last Poets, whose message was still a relevant one, and resume his writing and performing with the group.
Umar appeared at the Poetry International Festival 2002 in Rotterdam with a guitarist, to perform jazzy, associative narratives such as ‘The Drums’ and ‘Grace’, evoking dark, infernal journeys through modern-day America, yet also counting his blessings: bebop music, love. With his strongly rhythmic, spectacular presentation, he impressed and bewitched many.