In a career that spanned four decades, Gil Scott-Heron had a lot of labels ascribed to him: “revolutionary soul poet”, “the voice of black pride”, “godfather of rap”, “the black Bob Dylan”. While all of these may have been true in some way, labels are woefully insufficient to describe the loss of an artist like him.
Naturally, in the wake of his recent death at the age of 62, tributes to Scott-Heron have sprung up not just on music websites, but on sites for activist and anti-racist groups, and for history and culture fans. Hip-hop and R&B artists like Eminem, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, Chuck D, the Beastie Boys and Snoop Dogg have all publicly paid respect to him, a rather ironic twist given the innovator’s reticence toward the “godfather” role.
Indeed, there are many cruel ironies to the timing of Gil Scott-Heron’s death. Some of them are predictable: an artist who never got his due in life transformed to a legend in death. Most are the kind of painful “what ifs” that will be forever wondered by those who understood the connection between his ideas, his art, and the struggles he endured.
Hip-hop journalist Davey D hit the nail right on the head when he described this contradiction: “How many people are gonna talk about the bottle and really speak in a way that people can go ‘that is my life?’ He wasn’t trying to hide it. As an artist who’s willing to smash on the system that was oppressing us, he was also willing to show a lot of vulnerability, a lot of compassion, a lot of love.”
By all accounts, it could have been easy for the young Gil to choose the path of his hero Langston Hughes. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Hughes’ alma mater. In 1970, at 21, he had already published two novels, and like Hughes’ own work, they had evinced a strong connection with the African-American music world. Despite frequent collaborations with musicians varying from Kurt Weill to Charles Mingus, though, Hughes was thought of as a man of words before a man of notes; for Scott-Heron this distinction was increasingly blurred.
This was an era where plenty of boundaries were being broken, preconceived notions discarded. Hughes was dead. Malcolm and Martin were too—assassinated, in their cases. The revolutionary mood could be felt in the names of places alone: Vietnam, Paris, Watts.
By this time the militancy of groups like the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers—openly revolutionary, unabashedly proud and brooking no compromise with the system—was common parlance. Elaine Brown, an accomplished jazz and soul musician in her own right who would later become chairwoman of the Panthers, recalls in her autobiography A Taste Of Power that her calls for revolution were greeted with steadfast enthusiasm. It was an outlook embraced by Nina Simone, the Last Poets and countless other African American acts.
Though he was often dismissive of being called “political”, this same revolutionary fervor dripped from Gil’s first three albums. Sound-wise, they are vastly different. Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970) is mostly limited to the simplicity of his poetry wafting over sparse conga beats. Pieces of a Man (1971) and Free Will (1972) were his first collaborations with keyboardist and composer Brian Jackson and ventures into various forms of jazz and soul. What made all of these so palpably radical, though, was the poet’s ability to travail the distance between the hope and pain of Black America.
Scott-Heron called his sound “bluesology, the science of how things feel”. In 1998 he told the Chicago Tribune, “I had an affinity for jazz and syncopation, and the poetry came from the music… we wanted the music to sound like the words.” It was a sophistication well above the trite sloganeering that plagued (and continues to plague) so many “political” artists.
Observe, for example, the content of Pieces of a Man. Of course, the album comes out swinging, with the full instrumental version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, using Scott-Heron’s virulent distrust of mass corporate media as a way to frame the rest of the songs. The sanitized, quickly co-opted versions of Black Power are a mirage on this album; what’s taken their place are stories like those of the title track, where men and women are used up and turned to human dust:
I saw my daddy greet the mailman
And I heard the mailman say
‘Now don’t you take this letter to heart now Jimmy
Cause they’ve laid off nine others today’
He didn’t know what he was saying
He could hardly understand
That he was only talking to
Pieces of a man
It was this truth—one of poverty, invisibility, and tellingly, addiction—that made the insurgent cries against American racism so undeniable. That these kinds of songs are hardly uplifting is only part of the story.
Even in the midst of this intricate ghetto existentialism, Scott-Heron takes time for the jaunty soulfulness and optimism of “Save the Children” and “I Think I’ll Call It Morning”. Tracks like “Lady Day and John Coltrane” seem to straddle the two together, almost as if to declare that music itself has the strength to lift you out of the alienation and give you the strength to fight. Similarly, it’s impossible to listen to other pieces from this era—“Brother”, “Whitey on the Moon”—without hearing a very playful sense of humor.
The most obvious contrast between Pieces of a Man and 1974’s Winter in America is the widening of Scott-Heron and Jackson’s musical palette. Worldly and expansive elements of funk, free jazz and Afrobeat are laid down next to the artist’s redoubled spoken word. Lyrically, however, Gil’s optimism is notably overwhelmed. In past works he had always summoned the strength to look forward; on Winter in America, his most optimistic moments are wrapped in nostalgia. Two years before, “Home” had been “Where the Hatred Is”. Now, the most upbeat notions came when he went “Back Home”.
Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t the only one experiencing a change in mood. As the title suggested, hard times in America had gotten a whole lot harder. Two years prior, Richard Nixon had campaigned for a second presidential term by appealing to white segregationists who had previously supported the old southern Dixiecrats. This “Southern strategy”, which presented the Civil Rights and Black Power movements as somehow demanding special privileges, proved effective.
The Panthers had been neutralized, having fallen victim to internal disputes and the FBI’s COINTELPRO. Then, there was the stock market crash and the oil crisis of 1973, which basically put an end to the post-war boom. Entire cities were going bankrupt. Jobs, which had never been exactly plentiful in communities of color, suddenly became even more scarce.
The liner notes for Winter in America, Scott-Heron explained how all of this was reflected in the album’s songs:
At the end of 360 degrees, [w]inter is a metaphor: a term not only used to describe the season of ice, but the period of our lives through which we are travelling. In our hearts we feel that spring is just around the corner: a spring of brotherhood and united spirits among people of color. Everyone is moving, searching. There is a restlessness within our souls that keeps us questioning, discovering and struggling against a system that will not allow us space and time for fresh expression… We approach winter the most depressing period in the history of this industrial empire, with threats of oil shortages and energy crises.
Though Gil’s words attempted to maintain at least a tinge of hopefulness, the forces of urban decay proved to be much greater than his own resolve. As the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, the economic crisis was “solved” by attacking the very gains that had been won by the movements of the previous decade. Carter was replaced by Reagan, and the Southern strategy became a part of both parties in one way or another.
Through all this, Gil Scott-Heron continued composing radical, thought-provoking music and poetry. Following the Three Mile Island incident he joined with Musicians United for Safe Energy for the “No Nukes” concerts and compilation album. Though his contribution, “We Almost Lost Detroit”, was written about a partial meltdown at a southern Michigan power plant in 1966, it would take on an eerie double meaning as the Motor City went into steep decline during the ‘80s.