Gylan Kain, Spoken Word Artist Who Co-Founded the Original Last Poets, Dies at 81


Gylan Kain, the spoken-word artist known as Kain the Poet, who co-founded the influential New York outfit the Last Poets, died of complications from heart disease on February 7, The New York Times reports, citing his son Rufus Kain. He was 81 years old.

Born Frank Gillen Oates in 1942, Kain grew up in the South Bronx before moving to Queens, where he became a lover of theater. He adopted the Gylan Kain name for his acting work, and, in 1965, founded the Far East Theater in Manhattan, drawing in Black audiences with political events, plays, readings, and, eventually, poetry, often focused on matters of Black liberation. He formed the Last Poets with David Nelson and Abiodun Oyewole, debuting in 1968 at a Malcolm X memorial in Harlem.

The group toured and performed on TV, but declined a record deal with a white producer’s label, saying, “The Black Power mandate was that we were going to build our own institutions.” He released his debut solo album, an avant-garde assemblage of jazz, soul, and free-verse called The Blue Guerilla, on Juggy Murray’s label Juggernaut.

A schism in the Last Poets (with Jalal Mansur Nuriddin leading the main offshoot) led Kain to release his first album with Nelson and Felipe Luciano, as the Original Last Poets, in 1971, billed as the soundtrack to their performance film Right On! By the time of its release, Kain had switched his focus to acting. He performed in several productions at the Public Theater in New York, and continued to act in and write plays, and to perform and record poetry, after leaving the United States for Amsterdam in 1984. By the early 1990s, rap superstars had immortalized Kain’s legacy; both Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg sampled his voice, and Chuck D called the Last Poets, alongside their contemporary Gil Scott-Heron, “the roots of rap.”