It’s not publicly known when exactly Gil Scott-Heron’s troubles with addiction began. His arrests during the 2000s were the first that many fans had heard of these struggles. But, it does seem rather uncanny, in retrospect, that his output dropped precipitously at the height of Reagan’s America. Moving Target, his rather lackluster 1982 release was followed by 12 years without an original full-length (though he would maintain a busy tour schedule).
That same year was when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” blazed into the mainstream. Listening to the song’s lyrics, and those of the rappers it inspired, it was apparent that the ills Scott-Heron spoke of hadn’t gone anywhere. In fact, they had only grown. As jobs and services hemorrhaged from the ghettos of America, drugs took their place—often, according Pulitzer-prized journalist Gary Webb, with the knowledge and at least tacit approval of the US government.
And yet, as part of Reagan’s “war on crime”, sentences for drug offenses increased. States and cities passed draconian statutes based on New York’s “Rockefeller laws”. Addiction was, in essence, further criminalized, and possession began to carry a sentence similar to that of a violent offender. Of course, the effects were felt most harshly in poor communities of color.
Given all this, one can certainly see the parallels between the United States of the 1980s and South African apartheid. Scott-Heron had been making this comparison for almost a decade by the time he helped write and record “Let Me See Your I.D.” in 1985. Appearing on Artists United Against Apartheid’s Sun City album, Gil’s own deft, acerbic soliloquies are interspersed between the forceful raps of Duke Bootee and Melle Mel. But, while Gil’s influence on hip-hop is palpable here, so is the toll these years have taken on him. The voice that once boomed across performance spaces and forced you to listen is replaced with a grizzled, gravelly ramble, perhaps wiser for age but also worse for wear.
That same year, Gil was dropped from his label, Arista. It wouldn’t be until 1993 that he would sign with TVT and release Spirits a year later. Never one to keep his words on an easy path, the album included “Message to the Messengers”, a track that in many ways put him back on the map.
The overarching thrust of “Message”, that young rappers need to turn the blame away from each other and work together for real justice, might come off condescending in lesser hands. Normally that’s exactly how it is when baby-boomers talk about “the problems with rap”. Gil, however, realized he was speaking to a generation that could change the world the way his had tried:
Hey yeah, we the same brothers from a long time ago
We was talkin’ about television and doin’ it on the radio
What we did was help our generation realize
They had to get out there and get busy cause it wasn’t gonna be televised
We got respect for you rappers and the way they be free-weighin’
But if you’re gon’ be teachin’ folks things, make sure you know what you’re sayin’
Certainly, Gil saw the writing on the wall and the need to speak up. Over the course of the next several years under Bill Clinton, the US prison population would increase tenfold. A disproportionate number of this booming statistic were Black, non-violent drug offenders. Poverty, inequality, lack of access; all seemed to have gone nowhere in the era of “post-Civil Rights”.
In 2001, Gil was arrested on cocaine possession, convicted and sentenced to three years. He was paroled in 2003. In 2006 he was sentenced to three-to-four years for violating a plea deal by leaving rehab, and was again paroled in 2007. Later that same year, he was arrested yet again for cocaine possession.
During this period, when he was in and out of jail, Gil’s substance addiction became well-known. So too was it revealed in ’08 that he was HIV positive. Interviews with him would recount him openly smoking crack. Apparently during these same interviews, he couldn’t even bear to look in the mirror.
To the casual glance it would appear that he had become the very “pieces of a man” that he had so often written about, a poster-boy for how much had changed and how much had stayed the same. The very demons he had portrayed so well in songs like “The Bottle”, “Speed Kills” and “The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues” now seemed to relentlessly follow him around.
This would only be half the story, though. With hip-hop now the dominant force in popular music, Gil’s art surged into public consciousness the way it hadn’t in 20 years. Kanye West sampled him on “My Way Home” from 2005’s Late Registration, then again as the closing track from last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Countless rappers, from Talib Kweli to Aesop Rock have explored the ideas expressed in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. Both his novels have been reissued, and his material has been reworked by artists springing from not just rap, but punk, folk, trip-hop, reggae and dubstep.
And even as Gil struggled with his own afflictions, he knew that the greater struggle was the outside of himself. In 2010, not long before embarking on a world tour, he canceled his appearance in Tel Aviv, Israel at the urging of Palestine solidarity groups. Young activists, clearly hearkening back to Gil’s own involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle, told him “Your performance in Israel would be the equivalent to having performed in Sun City…”
In an irony that Gil himself must have appreciated, the return of revolution to the global landscape arrived at moment when mass media enjoy more hegemony than ever. The toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt haven’t just been televised, but Facebooked and Tweeted. Striking French workers and insurgent British students use their smartphones to coordinate mass actions. Communications execs panic at the notion of their products taking on a life of their own like Frankenstein’s monster, but one can only imagine Gil Scott-Heron laughing in approval. In fact, one could easily venture that he saw it coming.
After another long absence from the recording studio, 2010 also saw Gil release I’m New Here, which was greeted with positive reviews. Though released several months before the specter of uprising became a stunning reality, and lacking a great amount of his signature political commentary, it’s nonetheless a stunning portrait of history’s dark, vicious circle.
“Me and the Devil”, the sole single, carries all the markings of a Gil Scott-Heron piece (though the original version came from Robert Johnson). A stark portrait of loneliness, it is at once delta blues and urban electronica, sorrowful and menacing, thoroughly post-modern and old as the wind. The devil with whom Gil walks side-by-side isn’t just one he’s well-acquainted with, but one that possibly torments us all… and could but loose at any moment.
When asked if his love for music was just as powerful in 2010 as it was when he first started, he replied “Of course! Music has the power to make me feel good like nothing else does. It gives me some peace for a while. Takes me back to who I really am.” For him to have such faith in his art after so much pain was an example of that work’s indomitable relevancy.
It might be tempting to say that Gil Scott-Heron’s work was futile, and that the very forces he railed against were the ones that claimed his life. Gil, however, would most likely see it reversed; it was the vicissitudes of racism and inequality that made such struggle necessary in the first place. Taken as a whole, his songs and poetry leave one with the sense that eventually, that struggle will have to be worth it.
// Notes from the Road
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