Give props to Gil Scott-Heron for the cutting-edge topicality of his best street poetry and jazz-inflected R&B over the last four decades and the activist performer will accept the compliment graciously, albeit with reservations.
For instance, the celebrated anti-apartheid track “Johannesburg” - his first chart single and the opener on his 1976 album “From South Africa to South Carolina” - spotlighted an issue that was under most Americans’ radar but would soon become a bone of contention during the Reagan era.
“By the time I wrote that in 1974, Nelson Mandela had been in jail for 12 years,” Scott-Heron quickly points out during a conversation from his New York City home, disavowing any exceptional foresight in the process. “The subject of apartheid wasn’t new. It’s all about perspective, how you look at it.
“When we (Scott-Heron and musical collaborator Brian Jackson) did `Johannesburg,’ we wondered how something that important to the world had attracted so little attention. All of these smart people in and out of government overlooked it, so we tried to say something about it.”
Since 1970, when he informed both white and black America that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Chicago-born and Jackson, Tenn.-bred Scott-Heron has eloquently and acerbically had his say on subjects such the scourge of alcohol and drug addiction (“The Bottle,” “Angel Dust”); President Nixon’s crimes (“H2O Gate Blues”) and subsequent pardon (“We Beg Your Pardon”); reactionary politics and politicians (“Bicentennial Blues,” “B Movie,” “Re-Ron”), and the dangers of nuclear power (“We Almost Lost Detroit”).
Sadly, Scott-Heron, who inspired a legion of political rappers with albums such as “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox,” “Pieces of a Man” and “Winter in America,” has spent a chunk of this decade behind bars.
In 2001, he was sentenced to one to three years for cocaine possession. He was released on parole in 2003, but in 2006 he was sentenced to two to four years for violating a plea deal (he left a treatment center claiming he was denied medication to treat HIV). He was again paroled last May.
Since then, the now 59-year-old Scott-Heron has been performing and finishing a book, “The Last Holiday,” about Stevie Wonder’s successful campaign to have the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday made a national holiday.
Scott-Heron’s band includes percussionists Tony Duncanson and Larry MacDonald; bassist Robert Gordon (“the secretary of entertainment,” says Scott-Heron); guitarist Ed Brady (“the only black member of the Brady Bunch”); keyboardist-singer Kim Jordan, and saxophonist Vernon James.
As for “The Last Holiday,” Scott-Heron, who has been writing poetry since his teens and novels since 1970, says the long-delayed book “should be finished by end of the month. ... I’ve written far more than (the publisher) can use - over 500 pages - so the editing process will take a while.
“Stevie is not the kind of person to pat himself on the back,” adds Scott-Heron, noting that Wonder’s 1980 single “Happy Birthday” popularized the King holiday campaign, and through his efforts and 1981’s Rally for Peace Press Conference, 6 million signatures were collected to pressure Congress to pass the law.
President Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983. It was first observed in 1986. But it was not officially observed in all 50 states until 2000.
The long, sometimes bitter struggle over the holiday still reverberates. On April 4, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, said he made a “mistake” in 1983 when he voted against the bill that designated the third Monday of every January as a federal holiday in honor of King.
“They opposed it in Arizona on the basis of economics,” says Scott-Heron. “But Arizona changed its tune once the NFL said it wouldn’t bring the Super Bowl there ... It was about the money. It always was and always will be about the money. Forget the bald eagle. The symbol of America should be the dollar sign.”
As for the current presidential race, Scott-Heron is non-committal, preferring to take a long view.
President Bush’s father, a former head of the CIA, “has been president since 1974, as soon as Nixon’s hand was caught in the cookie jar,” says Scott-Heron.
“Reagan’s policies were not his fault,” he continues. “The election of Ronald Reagan just showed that the country was losing its grip.”
“He was just a governor from Arkansas.”
And the possibility that Barack Obama would be president?
“It would be great to have a good president, no matter what color he is,” says Scott-Heron. “I don’t know Obama as president. I know he’s a senator and people seem to like him. ... We won’t know who Obama really is until he takes office, if they let him take office.”