I received word of the passing of noted poet and singer
Gil Scott-Heron I felt as if I had just heard about the
death of a college friend whom I had not seen in many years.
Perhaps it was because I actually got to know the work of
Gil Scott-Heron while I was in college in the early 1970s.
His albums became part of my life and his songs and messages
were part of the support system on which I and many other
Black radicals came to depend.
There are tremendous ironies connected with the life and
work of GSH. If you listen to one of his most famous pieces,
The Bottle (Winter
in America [Vinyl]
), and another, Angel Dust (Secrets
) , you cannot but shake your head in knowing that the
brother struggled for years with his own substance abuse.
The contradiction is startling in its drama. Here was someone
who went out of his way to warn us all of the dangers of
substance abuse, yet he fell prey to it himself. I hope
that a future biographer of GSH will explore the demons
that haunted him and had him live such a contradiction.
Yet we must recognize and honor the many contributions of
GSH. He and the The Last Poets
Poets 1st Album) (actually there were two groups that both called
themselves The Last Poets) are seen as the
parents of Hip Hop, but that does not provide enough context.
GSH arose at a critical moment in the Black Freedom Movement
and the New Left. As Manning Marable notes in his biography
of Malcolm X, Malcolm
X: A Life of Reinvention
, Malcolm spoke with the sound of contemporary jazz.
GSH took the rhetoric and analysis of the radical wing of
the Black Freedom Movement and the New Left, and both poetized
and jazz-isized it. Whether through his famous The
Revolution will not be televised (Small
Talk at 125th & Lenox
) or later work like We beg your pardon America
Scott-Heron, Brian Jackson & The Midnight Band: The First
Minute Of A New Day (Arista) [Vinyl LP] [Stereo]),
GSH grabbed hold of challenges of the moment and created
a popular analysis that hit all of the right notes.
GSH was, in my opinion, at his best both when he was working
with Brian Jackson, but also when his voice and sound were
integrally part of a militant social justice movement.
When he sang Johannesburg (Best
of Gil Scott-Heron Live),
his words became the anthem of the anti-apartheid movement
in the USA. It was a song that came out at just the right
moment, inspiring us all with its fierceness and spirit
of resistance. You could not listen to that song without
feeling defiance in your soul and without being prepared
to march. In fact, the last time that I actually saw GSH
in the flesh he was performing just that song in August
1983 at the 20th anniversary of the famous March on Washington.
GSH never lost his relevance. I am always haunted by his
Message to the Messengers (Spirits
Album), which is a tremendous illustration of reaching
across the generational divide to both mentor as well as
partner with younger generations, offering them lessons
from the movement that shaped us.
I appreciate all that he did and all that he offered. Thank
you, brother Gil.