Called cultural nationalist, “musical prophet”, dissident, griot and icon. Called “the lone prince of the Black Arts Movement,” culture-bearer, provocateur, street scholar and bluesologist. On Friday May 27, Gil (Gilbert) Scott-Heron, an architect of hip-hop culture, whose voice defined a collective movement for black liberation, passed away. Just a teenager when the Black Arts Movement began in Harlem, Scott-Heron’s body of work and aesthetics of resistance has come to define the pain, oppression, complexity and beauty that sparked and sustained the Black Power Movement.
With over thirty recordings and two novels published during his expansive and tumultuous career, Scott-Heron, blues man, jazz poet, political spoken word artist, musician and cultural critic used his “words as weapons,” as Richard Wright described, to rip the blinders off the eyes of those in power and those most oppressed. His performances punctured the veneer of indecisiveness and ambivalence paralyzing bystanders while simultaneously energizing cultural and political warriors on the front lines of the movement for justice and equality. Bold, brash, antagonistic, unrelenting and often caustic, his work called for “all power to the people,” truth, and political transparency “by any means necessary.”
In order to really hear and appreciate the man whom Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets calls the “link between John Coltrane and Malcolm X,” one must understand the tension that he possessed between having an ear to the street and one to the heavens. One must understand the psychic, spiritual and intellectual energy expended to metabolize collective pain and spit back unparalleled beauty and lyricism. One must understand Gil Scott-Heron’s sacrifice in the name of truth and justice.
Born 1949 in Chicago, Illinois and raised in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1962 Scott-Heron settled in the South Bronx with his mother at thirteen years old. Against a backdrop of heightened urban decay, arguably initiated by the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway and “white flight”, Scott-Heron’s New York move came in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement, just months after the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) initiated the Freedom Rides through the south.
Soon, Dr. Martin Luther King would be jailed for anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama and Medgar Evers, voting rights activist, would be assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi. Fifteen year-old, James Powell, would be murdered by a police officer in 1964, sparking the Harlem Riots that spread to Brooklyn. However, the assassination of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz on February 21, 1965 would arguably be the most significant factor leading to the politicization of cultural activists such as Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and Haki Madhubuti.
A mere five years later, Scott-Heron would release his first studio album, Small Talk on 125th and Lenox in 1970. With cuts like “Whitey on the Moon,” “Plastic Pattern People” and “Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul?” Scott-Heron explicated and made palpable the angst, hopelessness, heart-break and despair felt throughout the black community. The breakout hit of this recording was undoubtedly “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
The Gil Scott-Heron audiences meet in 1970 speaks directly to his environment-his eyes like sponges absorbing every nuance of poverty, addiction and struggle impacting the lives of people in Harlem. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” served as a manifesto for an uncorrupted shift toward self-determination and sustainability, one that could not be packaged, purchased, bought or broadcast. He writes,
You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.
These lines describe a revolution that permeates the very fabric of black consciousness so intimately that even black people will not be able to sell it to the highest bidder. Utilizing repetition often experienced in the oratorical style of southern black preachers, he warns that no one will be able to dodge the revolution when it arrives; therefore, everybody needs to be ready.
As the young rebel poet matured, so did his ability to speak to the issues impacting the global south such as apartheid in South Africa and the Vietnam War. His voice began to reflect not just a local but a trans-local movement for liberation and social justice. His seventh album, From South Carolina to South Africa, featured “Johannesburg,” a song about a burgeoning freedom movement in South Africa. He writes,
They tell me that our brothers over there
are defyin’ the Man
We don’t know for sure because the news we
get is unreliable, man
Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’
but I’m glad to see resistance growin’
Somebody tell me what’s the word?
Tell me brother, have you heard
His poetry reached across oceans and built bridges connecting communities in South Carolina to those in South Africa, communities in Birmingham to those in Boston, communities in Little Rock to those in Selma. His work situated black struggle and liberation in the United States beside global struggle for liberation. Scott-Heron introduced oppressed peoples, the world over, to their extended family in this country. This shift in voice, artistic scope and reach, informed his almost superhuman ability to take a panoramic survey of United States’ foreign policy and report the news to anyone within earshot. He was truly the people’s professor.
In 2004, BBC released The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a documentary film about the Scott-Heron’s life and artistry. The film included appearances from musicians and performers like Mos Def, Chuck D, Sarah Jones and Scott-Heron himself. In the film, Gil explained music’s influence on his development as an artist and thinker. Reared on a diet of Tennessee blues, Jim Crow, Latin Jazz and black radical thought, Scott-Heron was a product of a cultural and geographic gumbo that honed the unique, raw and uncut voice generations of fans have come to adore.
In the film, Scott-Heron described the clearly identifiable voice and craft of artists like John Coltrane and Billie Holiday. Ntozake Shange writes about a similar idea in her essay “taking a solo/ a poetic possibility/ a poetic imperative.” She explained, poets must be beholden to the word before politics, that voice and content precede function. Scott-Heron, however, was a devotee of the word, the rhythm, the blues, funk and the truth. He possessed the keen and rare ability to balance art and politics, treating both as key elements of his liberation poetics.
As The Revivalist remembers Gil Scott-Heron, we celebrate this brilliant star that transcends time and space. We honor the body of work he leaves behind and his fundamental role introducing legions of young artists to jazz. With recent collaborations with Kanye West and Blackalicious, it is clear that his creative scope and reach extend beyond corporeal limits. Gil will live on in our minds and hearts through his poems, songs, humanity and insistence on freedom. A Luta Continua! The Struggle Continues!
Check out Gil Scott-Heron on the web.
Words by Ebony Noelle Golden