[5 June 2011]
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.
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.