The news of the passing of Gil Scot Scott-Heron on Friday 21st May in St. Luke’s Hospital, New York City, sent a shockwave throughout the world. Undoubtedly,one of the most influential musical poets of the post-modern era, Scott-Heron’s sharp and visceral commentary of a post-civil rights America with its writhing poverty,racism, unemployment and inner city decay, became the voice and conscience of a disenfranchised generation.
The title track From his 1970 semaphore/debut album,’Small Talk at 125th and Lenox’, is the classic, ‘The Revolution Will Not BeTelevised’, which is hailed as the modern proto -rap record. Upon hearing of Gil’spassing, Chuck D of 1990′s political rap group, ‘Public Enemy ‘ tweeted, “and we do what we do and how we do because of you. And to those that don’t know tip your hat with a hand over your heart & recognize”.
My own romance with Gil’s blend of lyrical majesty and political chivalry began with that same classic track which I sampled for use in my first single released in the early 1990′s. At that time, the reputation of Gil and other similar politically charged poets like Harlem, New York’s ‘The Last Poets’, was a major influence on the emerging US rap scene, despite him not having released a new album for almost a decade since the early 1980′s. He is credited as the ‘Grandfather of Rap’, although he preferred the moniker of ,’bluesologist’ , labeling his music a fusion of poetry, blues, jazz and soul. You only have to listen to his various ballads and song’s like ‘A Lovely Day’ from his ‘From South Africa to South Carolina’ album to appreciate the full range of Gil’s lyric and musical repertoire and to remind yourself that he was not solely a political artist. Gil’s poetry and music made an indelible mark on the human consciousness.
His second album, ‘Pieces Of a Man’, produced the sublime, ‘Lady Day and John Coltrane’ a homage to jazz legends Billy Holiday and John Coltrane and the cutting, ‘Home Is Where the Hatred Is’, which describes his desperate life-long battle against drug addiction against a backdrop of wider community alienation and disillusionment.
For me, it was Gil’s ability to both celebrate and berate at the same time which was his gift to the world. This ability to give a voice to the voiceless and tell their very human story. The ubiquitous story of coexisting with rising joy and sinking pain; this became his trademark. His lyrical dexterity, charm and poise wrapped his words within a cerebral vacuum which was hard to punctuate or leave once you were caught up in it. Listening to Gil’s poetry and music seems to liberate the spirit and yet hold it prisoner at the same time. He possessed, perhaps, the stark romance of Keats, and the gritty realism of Dylan, combined. Throughout the 1970′s and early 1980′s, his new studio albums emerged, such as: ‘Winter in America’ (1974),with the classic, ‘The Bottle’ and the emblematic, ‘Johannesburg’ of ‘From South Africa to South Carolina (1976)’ . His last album for Arista Records was ‘MovingTarget’ in 1982.
The son of a Jamaican father, Gil Heron, nicknamed “The Black Arrow”, was a soccerplayer who, in the 1950s, became the first black athlete to play for Glasgow CelticFootball Club in Scotland. Having attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he left after around two years to write the novels, ‘The Vulture’ and ‘The NiggerFactory’ The former was published in 1970 and well received. He received a Master’s degree in Creative Writing in 1972 from Johns Hopkins University.
Around this time, the Black Power movement had succeeded the assassinated Malcolm X in America and Scott-Heron’s writing and musical themes became a soundtrack of that time. In fact, Gil acknowledges both Huey P Newton (co-founder of the BlackPanther Party) and Malcom X as influences on the sleeve of his debut album. Scott-Heron was the first signing to Arista Records. Arista was ex-Columbia Records chief Clive Davis’s new label. He later signed Earth, Wind & Fire and Aretha Franklin amongst others. His prolific music career with Arista lasted 10 years from 1975 to 1985 and produced 8 studio albums. After he left Arista, Gil did not record any studio albums for almost a decade until he signed to TVT Records in 1993 and as if from nowhere, released, ‘Spirits’.
I recall hearing its seminal track, ‘Message to The Messenger’ on cassette format using my Sony Walkman and headphones. The young effervescent voice of before was replaced by a seasoned growl, but the poignant lyrical brilliance and the familiar faltering and vulnerable vibrato that ended almostevery note, remained. With its infamous synth bassline melody and hi-hat introaccompanied by Scott-Heron gently humming the melody before unleashing his diatribe against the new generation of rappers, reminding them of their shortcomings and responsibility alike; this cogent and damming part soliloquy, partlecture, re-affirmed Scott-Heron’s return and affirmed his new status as the elderstatesman for a new generation. His later years were marked by prison terms for drug possession and failing health allegedly caused by contracting HIV.
After his release from prison in 2007, Gil began performing again and a series of concerts, radio and TV interviews confirmed his return to music. Gil released his new album,’I'm New Here’ only last year and it received worldwide critical acclaim and introduced Gil to a new generation. He began touring and performing again throughout 2010 with some high profile concerts in London. He appeared to be back in the spotlight and enjoying it.
My enduring memory of Gil was during his performance at a London venue over 10 years ago. Older and more frail, his towering slim frame housed a bellowing angelic prose that shook the room and the hearts of the audience. The atmosphere was electric and Gil presided over his followers in an almost pastoral and spiritual way. His presence and status was palpable and his commitment to political freedoms everlasting. RIP Brother Gil.