I am unqualified to write about Gil Scott-Heron’s life or death, and I want you to know that I know this before I write about him or what I think his music means to the world and to me. I make no pretense of authority, knowledge, insight, personal interaction with or particular credible depth with which to pursue writing about him. What I can tell you is that everything I do know of Gil Scott-Heron I learned because of how deeply and profoundly his work moved and continues to move me and the understandings I am grateful for that I came to discover through choosing to be exposed to his body of work.
Gil-Scott Heron’s poetry, his books, his music and his legacy, the source of debate and controversy almost since the day his name came into popular culture, have become permanently knotted threads woven into the fabric of the modern American literary and musical landscapes. His influence on hip-hop is incalculable by any measure. His poetry and lyricism are studied and discussed at length by scholars, authors, writers, poets and rappers far and wide. His music and spoken word recordings remain a wellspring of animus that spreads itself across multiple genres.
As influenced by the pro-Black radical movement as he was a searing voice of the movement itself, Scott-Heron’s work carries an intense weight that some are unprepared to hear: beautiful melodies laced with messages of empowerment and vitriolic phrases bubbling up from a well-founded anger felt among Black people who came of age during his generation. Scott-Heron consistently made astute and unflattering observations regarding the corrupt activity of politicians and the political process; the confounding persistent, willful ignorance by white America towards the growing, vast expanses of dirty, crime-and-drug-infested ghetto streets which stretched from one end of this continent to the other during the mid-late 20th century; and, the disenfranchised millions who lived in them, a people whom his words & music impacted and represented, particularly African-Americans.
Gil Scott-Heron entered the legacy he would leave behind during a painful and damaging time in this country when it was, at the very least, considered criminal to simply be a person of color by a large percentage of the people who were in positions of political, economic and social authority in America. Gil Scott-Heron voiced rebellion against an undeniably oppressive system designed to, in no uncertain terms, keep people of color and other minorities in a state of abject poverty and self-hatred intended to perpetuate itself across generations. Scott-Heron was unafraid to use his voice to attack the figures behind the bully pulpits who acted as if they were beyond reproach, to point out obvious hypocrisy and purposeful ignorance to impoverished inner city affliction wherever it existed, willing to attack both the white power structure and individuals falsely calling themselves Black revolutionaries with an equal fervor. Because Gil Scott-Heron devoted himself to speaking out without fear of retribution, he was the subject of investigations, harassment, and threats by people from both sides of the ongoing social conflict that existed in America during and after the Vietnam war. Though lionized by fellow musicians, critics, poets, and culturally significant figures throughout his career, Scott-Heron was often the outsider trying to find a way to describe to all other outsiders how to find a way in, over or around the obstacles that stood in their path.
To try and describe him with anything less than a string of hyperbolic phrasings and unsuitable adjectives would be to eschew the importance of his contributions. I have heard him referred to as “the black Bob Dylan”; while I find this phrase well-intentioned, I personally find it a little bit insulting because it requires someone hearing that reference to place him in a box or a category that can be easily digested. However, not unlike Dylan, he used his words and music to move people in a way that was intended to affect lasting changes in the world.
When Gil Scott-Heron came out with his first, and to many his most important, contribution to music & poetry “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” in 1970, he was making a call-to-arms, both demanding that Black people should stop allowing themselves to simply settle for the status quo and, at the same time, openly lambasting the homogenized television culture of a post-Vietnam America that paid no attention to the plight of the inner city except as fodder for the television news. But Scott-Heron’s words and music, a truly unique blend of his influences — Langston Hughes (by far his biggest influence), John Coltrane, Billie Holliday, Richie Havens, Otis Redding, Jose Feliciano, and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jackson (with whom Scott-Heron collaborated for many years) — transcended a single work, performance or recording. From 1970 to 1982, Scott-Heron released 13 albums and published three books, performed and toured feverishly, and created a series of recordings that teemed with the rhythms of the streets, blending both African and Latin percussion with timeless new progressions in jazz and blues.
There’s no denying the sad irony that Scott-Heron, who long touted the evils of drugs and alcohol in songs like “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”, “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust” became, himself, crippled by throes of addiction. At some point in the 1980’s, Scott-Heron became as notorious for his failure to make public appearances as he was admired for his body of work. His public appearances became fewer and far between, leading many to simply write him off entirely. Scott-Heron spent the last ten years of his life being arrested, placed into court-ordered drug rehabilitation or incarcerated a number of times for cocaine possession, jailed in 2001-2002, 2006 and arrested again in 2007. From somewhere within him, though, a part of his damaged spirit found the desire to push him into regaining his foothold on his life’s work.
Recording what would be his final work, I’m New Here (a collaboration with XL Recordings founder and owner Richard Russell), Scott-Heron was no longer merely enraged with the stubbornness of his own demons grinning impishly at the marks he made on a world that, in some sense, had turned and left him in exile to carry out their demands. Gil Scott-Heron, at the time of his death, left behind no mere footnote to his legacy or solemn bookend to his work. On first listen, I’m New Here may sound like the words of a defeated or angry man giving up his will to modern convenience, abated by time and circumstance. My initial reaction to the album and the subsequent remixes was a kind of disgust, the thought that Scott-Heron, whom I deem a personal hero, was being taken advantage of by XL Recordings and the UK media in an effort to exploit him and capitalize on his weakened condition brought on by virtue of his addiction. On repeated listening, and knowing what I know of the relationship between Scott-Heron and Richard Russell now, I see something much less sinister and much more profound. These are not the incoherent ramblings of a once-great poet and performer being coddled by white media magnates in an effort to seem racially unbiased; they are the willful collaborations between a man genuinely moved by Scott-Heron’s work and the reactions of a man who knew exactly how far he had leapt from the precipice of all he rallied against, seeing his humanity with clarity and recognizing the frailty of the very human conditions he struggled with.
In his passing, a hope exists within me that those who come to Gil Scott-Heron’s work will pay less attention to the gaps and more attention to the important building blocks and pieces which remain. The struggle of Black people to overcome that Scott-Heron encouraged and the ignorance to the plight of the inner city by white America that he fearlessly criticized may seem like a footnote in American history to the untrained eye. But I can’t listen to Scott-Heron’s voice, his inflection, his passion without asking myself all the time if anything has really changed or, if what’s really happened, is that the game remains the same while we as a culture have not truly progressed but simply shifted the blame.