Gil Scott-Heron: The Wisdom of Anger
I’m gutted to hear that Gil Scott-Heron, the American musician and poet, has died at the age of just 62. Described as the “Godfather of Rap”, a title he apparently disliked, Scott-Heron influenced the origins of rap music with his spoken-word performances. A novelist (The Vulture and The Nigger Factory) and poet before musician. He wrote the song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and the phrase entered the cultural lexicon after appearing on his 1970 album Small Talk at 125th & Lennox. It was overplayed and became a cliche, but it’s still a classic, as is “Winter in America” and his devastating musical critiques of Reagan’s American nightmare.
His dad, Gilbert “Gil” Heron, nicknamed “The Black Arrow”, became the first black player to play for Celtic Football Club.
He’s sometimes characterised as purely a ‘black’ civil rights activist. This characterisation is simplistic. He was a long-standing opponent of nuclear power (“Shut Em Down”). In 1979, Scott-Heron played at the No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden. The concerts were organized by Musicians United for Safe Energy to protest the use of nuclear energy following the Three Mile Island accident. Scott-Heron’s song “We Almost Lost Detroit”, written about a previous accident at a nuclear power plant, was included in the No Nukes album of concert highlights. (We Almost Lost Detroit is the title of a book about the accident by John G. Fuller.) Scott-Heron was a frequent critic of President Ronald Reagan and his conservative policies.
From Wikipedia: “Scott-Heron recorded and released only four albums during the 1980s; 1980 and Real Eyes in 1980, Reflections in 1981 and Moving Target in 1982. Ron Holloway on tenor saxophone was added to Gil’s ensemble in February 1982. He toured extensively with Scott-Heron and contributed to his next album, Moving Target that same year. His tenor is prominently featured on the songs “Fast Lane” and “Black History/The World”. Holloway continued with Scott-Heron until the summer of 1989, when he left to join Dizzy Gillespie. Several years later, Scott-Heron would make cameo appearances on two of Ron Holloway’s CD’s; Scorcher (1996) and Groove Update (1998), both on the Fantasy/Milestone label.
Scott-Heron was dropped by Arista Records in 1985 and quit recording, though he continued to tour. Also that year, Scott-Heron helped compose and sing the song “Let Me See Your I.D.” on the Artists United Against Apartheid album Sun City, containing the famous line, “The first time I heard there was trouble in the Middle East, I thought they were talking about Pittsburgh.”
He also penned the famous (pre-Obama) line: “We’re asked if we’d take Jesse Jackson…hell we’d take Michael Jackson.”
In April 2009 on BBC Radio Four, poet Lemn Sissay presented a half-hour documentary on Gil Scott-Heron entitled Pieces of a Man. Having interviewed Gil Scott-Heron in New York a month earlier, Pieces of a Man was the first UK announcement from Gil of his forthcoming album and return to form. In November 2009, the BBC’s Newsnight interviewed Gil Scott-Heron for a feature titled The Legendary Godfather of Rap Returns. In 2009, a new Gil Scott-Heron website, gilscottheron.net, was launched with a brand new track “Where Did The Night Go” made available as a free download from the site.
Canongate have his book “The Last Holiday” about Stevie Wonder’s successful attempt to have Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday, presumably it will be published now. I know what I’m listening to this weekend.
See also this tribute at Third Estate.