Remembering Gil Scott-Heron

A powerful voice left us at a youthful age of 62 in late May of 2011 when long-term Harlem resident, poet and recording artist Gil Scott-Heron passed away. Scott-Heron was a rapper, poet and musician who was primarily known for his syncopated spoken words, harsh-blunt criticizing poetry performances in the 1970 ‘s and 1980’s expressing the difficulty of being a Black man living in America.

Gill was born in Chicago in 1949 to a teacher-librarian-singer Bobbie Scott and a Jamaican soccer player father Scott-Heron. His parents separated in his early childhood and he then went to live with his maternal grandmother Lillie Scott in Jackson Tennessee. He returned to live with his mother after his grandmother dies in 1961. He attended Dewitt Clinton High School but later transferred to the prestigious Fieldstron School in the Bronx. He was one of five Black students in a class of 100 to win a writing scholarship to attend this prestigious high school .The social alienation he experienced at Fieldstron created a boldness which later on was his hallmark for his recordings.

After Fieldstron Scott-Heron went to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Lincoln University was the same college which one of his idol’s Black writer Langston Hughes attended. After two years at Lincoln, Scott-Heron took a year off to write two novels “Vulture” and “The Nigger Factory.” He meet Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets at Lincoln in 1969 and was influenced by their performance work. He sort out there advice on how to do performance-rap art. He returned to New York at the end of 1969 and published “Vulture” which was well received. He never completed a bachelors but went on to receive a Masters in creative writing from John Hopkins University in 1972.

Gill Scott-Heron began his recording career in 1970 by publishing the poetry collection Small Talk on 125 Street & Lenox. This album was inspired by a collection of poetry and was recorded in collaboration with college friend Brian Jackson. This recording was made at the New York-based Flying Dutchman label. This album contained a rap piece called “Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and established his name as a militant artist passionate about social justice both within and beyond black America. He stayed with the Flying Dutchman label until he signed with Arista in the mid 1970’s and found success on the R & B charts. Another version of Small Talk on 125 Street and Lenox was recorded with a band featuring jazz bassist Ron Carter, was Mr. Scott-Heron ‘s second album “Pieces on a Man,” 1971.

Between 1970 and 1982 Gill Scott-Heron recorded 13 albums and was one of the first music acts music executive Clive Davis signed after starting Arista Records in 1974. His follow-up to Small Talk was 1971’s Pieces Of A Man, which was arranged by Johnny Pate who had previously worked with Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions on songs such as “Choice Of Colors”. This album contained a fuller version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, and also the song, “Lady Day and John Coltrane”, about the way that great art, and particularly music, can lift people from the toil of their everyday lives.

Most of Scott-Heron’s rap poetry was political. He wrote a number of overt protest songs such as “Johannesburg”, and was active in a number of campaigns about apartheid and anti-nuclear .He recorded the anti-nuclear song “We Almost Lost Detroit” and performed it at the 1979’s Musicians For Safe Energy gig.

In the early 1980s, Scott-Heron toured with Stevie Wonder to promote Wonder’s campaign for a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King and the achievements of the civil rights movement

In later years Scott-Heron had addiction problems spending time in jail. He did not release many albums but did go on live tours. But in 1994 he released an introspective album called Spirits. On the track Message to the Messenger he criticized rappers who glorified gangster lifestyles

Speaking on a US radio station in 2008, Scott-Heron said that the day was a “time for people to reflect on how far we have come, and how far we still have to go, in terms of being just people. Hopefully it will be a time for people to reflect on the folks that have done things to get us to where we are and where we’re going.”

Scott-Heron described himself in the interview as “a Black man dedicated to expression; expression of the joy and pride of Blackness”. He derided white America’s complacency over inner-city inequality with mordant wit and social observation:

From the Revolution Will Not Be Televised, his debut LP, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox: “The revolution will not be right back after a message ’bout a white tornado, white lightning or white people. You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank or the giant in your toilet bowl. The revolution will not go better with connection .The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath. The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.”

-Robert Sondak

Robert Sondak is a vendor and a writer for Spare Change News.

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