Tongues on Fire, Barbican, London

A stream of images as incendiary now as when they were created in 1970s America was the onstage backdrop to an evening dedicated to recalling the Black Panthers. The images were the work of Emory Douglas, the militant group’s minister of culture, and the grainy outlines of clenched fists, Kalashnikovs aloft and “kill the pigs” slogans left little doubt that when the Panthers said they were revolutionaries, they meant it.

But Douglas’s radical graphics, like the Panthers themselves, went beyond sloganeering. His propaganda came with high-art references and directly expressed the creative energy of the Panthers’ learn-as-you-go initiatives. It was this energy that was captured in the Barbican’s thought-provoking tribute, based on the compositions of jazz saxophonist David Murray and seven poems from Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan.

The gig opened with a raw and funky riff, closed with the blues and segued through reggae, afrobeat and Latin jazz. Each composition juxtaposed the veteran oratory of Oyewole and Bin Hassan – they were core members of the Last Poets, formed in 1968 on Malcolm X’s birthday – with up-to-the-mark rap from Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, founder member of hip-hop band The Roots. High tenor vocals from Living Colour’s Corey Glover added extra spice.

Roots drummer “?uestlove” traded press rolls with military precision and added cutting-edge beats, as Vernon Reid delivered post-Hendrix guitar and bottleneck blues. Meanwhile, an on-fire Murray contributed impressive stratospherics and harmonic control. And, as the images swirled above, the music changed shape and texture with impressive control, and made sure that Black Panther iconography was, even in the Barbican Hall, something of a living force. ()

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