Nehanda Abiodun, a black nationalist and anti-drug activist who was charged in connection to a deadly 1981 armored-truck robbery, then fled to Cuba and helped grow that country’s grass-roots, politically conscious hip-hop scene, died Jan. 30 at her home in Havana. She was 68.
Her death was confirmed by Henry Louis Taylor Jr., an urban planning professor at the University of Buffalo who is writing a biography of Ms. Abiodun with a colleague, Linda McGlynn. Ms. Abiodun’s health “had been declining over the last couple of years,” he said, but “she seemed to be on an upswing.” The precise cause of death was not immediately known.
Alternately described as a terrorist and a warrior for liberation, Ms. Abiodun was a member of two left-wing revolutionary groups that emerged in the late 1960s, as the nonviolent activism of the civil rights and antiwar movements gave way to militant forms of protest.
Her family was one of many fractured by that shift: While her mother was a follower of Martin Luther King Jr., her father joined the Nation of Islam and worked as a bodyguard for Malcolm X, taking a young Ms. Abiodun — then called Laverne Dalton — to hear him speak at a mosque near their home in Harlem.
Ms. Abiodun went on to immerse herself in the Black Power movement and, by the early 1970s, joined what Taylor called “the radical anti-drug movement.” Working at a methadone clinic and then at Lincoln Detox, a rehab program run by left-wing activists in the Bronx, she “began to believe that the government had made a severe mistake by criminalizing heroin, and then by not providing adequate treatment.”
For Ms. Abiodun, Taylor added, drugs were “a new form of oppression inside of the African American community.”
By the end of the decade, she had adopted an African name, Nehanda Isoke Abiodun, and become a member of the Black Liberation Army and Republic of New Afrika, both of which called for the creation of a majority-black state within America’s borders. At times, she referred to herself not as an American but as a “New Afrikan.”
According to the FBI, she also joined a militant group known as “the Family,” which included members of the BLA, Republic of New Afrika and Weather Underground. The group was accused of financing its political activities by robbing banks and armored cars, most notoriously on Oct. 21, 1981, when a Brinks truck was held up in Nanuet, N.Y., not far from the village of Nyack.
Amid the theft, two police officers and one security guard were killed, and three others were wounded. Ms. Abiodun was accused of driving one of the getaway cars and managed to escape. In 1982, a federal grand jury indicted her on charges that included bank robbery, obstruction of justice and racketeering.
By all accounts, she evaded capture for years by crisscrossing the country before making her way to Cuba in 1990, even as the FBI homed in on the robbery’s ringleader, Mutulu Shakur. The stepfather of rapper Tupac Shakur, he was arrested in 1986 and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Ms. Abiodun was still listed on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list at the time of her death. For decades, she denied that she was ever involved in the Brinks robbery, which she preferred to call an “expropriation.”
“If your cause is just, if you’re at war, then it’s the booty of war,” she told the Miami New Times in 2000. The police officers who were killed in New York, she added, “were upholding the genocidal and oppressive policies of the United States. They were soldiers who were at war with us. When I say us, I don’t mean just ‘us’ in the African community; I mean people of color and poor people.”
Ms. Abiodun was also charged with helping her friend Assata Shakur, a Black Liberation Army member unrelated to Mutulu, escape from a New Jersey prison in 1979. She had been convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper six years earlier. “Whether or not I did help Assata escape, I will say that I am proud of being accused of it,” Ms. Abiodun told Vibe magazine in 2018.
Both women found refuge in Havana, where Ms. Abiodun channeled her political activism into music. Often described as the “godmother of Cuban hip-hop,” she organized a Havana chapter of Black August, a grass-roots organization that promotes hip-hop culture with a political edge, and served as a bridge between musicians in Cuba and the United States.
“How I [fight] might be different, but I don’t have the luxury of changing my mind,” she told Ebony magazine in 2014. “Freedom is freedom, and I’ve been fighting for freedom since I was 10 years old.”
Back then, she said, she was protesting a Columbia University proposal to build a gym in Morningside Park, a beloved Harlem green space, and had joined the picket line without her parents’ knowledge.
Laverne Cheri Dalton was born in Manhattan on June 29, 1950. Her mother worked in customer service for United Airlines, and her parents separated when Laverne was 13. Around three years later, her father was fatally shot while working as a bouncer in a nightclub; Ms. Abiodun came to suspect he may have been assassinated by political enemies, in retaliation for his work with Malcolm X.
She studied journalism at Columbia but left school in December 1973 without receiving a degree. As the heroin epidemic ravaged Harlem and other inner-city neighborhoods around the country, she began working at rehab clinics, eventually settling at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx.
The medical center’s unconventional detox program employed members of the Young Lords as well as former Black Panthers and featured community service projects and educational sessions on left-wing politics, in addition to acupuncture treatment.
After it was closed by New York City officials in 1978 amid allegations of mismanagement, Ms. Abiodun joined the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America, a Harlem-based successor group led by Mutulu Shakur.
Ms. Abiodun had two children and several grandchildren and sometimes seemed pained at leaving her family to face questions from law enforcement officials in the United States. “She said, ‘I never wanted to be a revolutionary, I just wanted to be a mom,’ ” Taylor recalled. “But the government continued, in every spot, engaging in activities that in her view forced her to do that.”