Remembering a Legend: Gil Scott Heron
Imagine it: You’re writing a piece about the key figures in recent black history. About black liberation, about the great battles against civil oppression; the 60s riots, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Apartheid and Nelson Mandela. The tragedies and the victories. The more you write about those original great names, and those great political stands they made, the more you realize the debt owed by them and us to a great number of other names, people who in their own areas outside of politics fought their own struggles against discrimination, and by their own force of mind and strength of soul played their very own special part in the tide of black liberty. There’s Muhammad Ali, who conquered racism and all his opponents together, in the ring. Maya Angelou, who gave a voice to so many. Billie Holiday. And, for me and so many others, for some one of the greatest of all, Gil Scott Heron, who died last year and deserves our thought and attention.
Gil Scott Heron was a musician and poet always keen to make his own position clear. His heyday in the great swirling period of musical transformations in the 70s and 80s led many to give him labels he hastened to reject. Some said his central position in the ‘Harlem’ music scene, embracing jazz and soul and giving it a socially conscious, hard hitting feel, prefigured and contributed to the the development of Rap music. He hated this label for himself, and felt that he contributed nothing what he saw as a violent, dangerous strain of music, uninterested in true liberation and well being. He regarded himself as more a ‘bluesologist’, taking his influence and making music in the name of jazz, blues and Harlem renaissance poetry. As a central part of the ‘Last Poets’ movement amongst socially conscious black nationalist performers in the late 60s and 70s, Gil Scott Heron’s forward thinking lyrics and progressive songwriting have become nonetheless a crucial element in the central strain of Rap DNA, influencing countless Rap artists from its very first origins right up to today, with artists such as Kanye West frequently sampling his music. Chuck D, leader of Public Enemy, summarized his epic significance in the spoken word thus: “You can go into Ginsberg and the Beat poets and Dylan, but Gil Scott-Heron is the manifestation of the modern word … He and the Last Poets set the stage for everybody else.” With his music on you may sit in your Palliser couch, at your table, and hear a social change being headed all by the effects of his words. His effect on the Civil Rights movement in America was as an enlightened figurehead, a poet and a singer whose words bought a sort of stable, sane voice of reason into a chaotic time.
Origins and Career
Born in Chicago in 1949 – on April Fools day – Gil Scott Heron was the son of a Jamaican soccer player and a librarian, an origin which almost certain gave him his first taste for the written word in all its forms. Transplanted quickly to Tennessee after the break up of his parents – a hard place for a young black child to grow up undoubtably – Heron spent many of his younger years being educated on the Bronx, where he was educated in a school as one of three kids selected to ‘integrate’ a previously white college. Here he saw and formulated many of the experiences that would shape him as he grew up.
By this young point he was already writing prodigiously, and would complete his first set of poems aged only 13. Dropping out of of school after a year, Heron began to devote more and more time to his writing career, which reached a high with the 1968 release of the important, critically acclaimed novel The Vulture. Convinced in the 60s to begin recording music, a spate of full length albums followed his departure from schooling, in which he experimented with jazz and established his trademark ‘spoken word’ technique of combining his poetry with simple, solid music.
His sharp tongue and wit made him a fast growing figure in the black music scene of the period. It was in these years that perhaps his most scorching piece was released: The Revolution will not be Televised was an acidic polemic against the white, biased media (dis) coverage of the deteriorating conditions inside some of America’s black slum areas in the inner cities which bites to this day. The song he made of it put him firmly on the radar with a whole generation of aspiring musicians, writers and thinkers of the era.
A decade of recording and writing followed, in which he fearlessly tackled issues close to the heart of the black rights movement, focusing at times on the cold, detached media coverage with which most of America viewed those turbulent decades. In the mid 80s he turned his attentions to the Neo Conservative actions of current president Ronald Reagan, then went quiet for over a decade, returning in the 90s to issue an attack on the increasingly violent ‘Gangster Rap’ movement with which he was frequently associated through influence. His opening to the 1994 albums The Spirits began with a ‘Message to the Messengers’ in which Heron begged the new generation of ‘Gangsta Rappers’ to respect their heritage and the older generation that gave them the space to provide a healthy influence to a new, younger generation.
Suffering drugs possession troubles in the wake of this album, and being diagnosed eventually with HIV, Heron slowed down recording and largely dropped out of the media, returning in 2007 with live performances around the globe. His last album, I’m New Here, was released in 2010.
On May 27th, 2011, Gill Scott Heron died in a Manhattan hospital. But his influence, recorded and etched into the history of the movement that gave him platform and to which he was a dedicated member, will linger forever, giving each new generation extra dedication to the causes of fairness, liberty, and equality for all. Heron is and will always be a figure not only in music and poetry but in politics itself – a figurehead for the belief that, in the face of political inequality, and political oppression, struggling against the odds in the name of your own fate in whatever you do – be it boxing, writing, music – will contribute in its own way just as much as many other method to the realization of political and social change. Gil Scott Heron truly deserves a place amongst the shoulders of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X in the great annals of black history.