Opinion

Gylan Kain, a Founder of the Last Poets and a Progenitor of Rap, Dies at 81

Gylan Kain, a Harlem-born poet and performance artist who was a founder of the Last Poets, the spoken-word collective that laid a foundation for rap music starting in the late 1960s by delivering fiery poetic salvos about racism and oppression over pulsing drum beats, died on Feb. 7 in Lelystad, the Netherlands. He was 81.

He died in a nursing home from complications of heart disease, his son Rufus Kain said. His death was not widely reported at the time.

The Last Poets, which originally consisted of Mr. Kain, David Nelson and Abiodun Oyewole, were aligned with the Black Arts Movement — the cultural corollary to the broader Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s — of which the activist poet and playwright Amiri Baraka was a central figure.

The Original Last Poets, as they were billed, in the 1970 film “Right On!” From left, Mr. Kain, Felipe Luciano and David Nelson. Credit…Herbert Danska, via Museum of Modern Art

With their staccato wordplay and sinewy rhythms, the Last Poets were pioneers of performance poetry, spinning out portraits of Black street life that often bristled with the guerrilla spirit of revolution.

They made their public debut on May 19, 1968, in Mount Morris Park, now Marcus Garvey Park, in Harlem, at a celebration of the slain civil rights leader Malcolm X. Less than two months after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, it was a fraught period in Black America, but also a time percolating with calls for dramatic change.

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