Live long enough and you’ll either be disappointed by your heroes or you’ll bury them.
Did I say “heroes?” Sorry. I meant to say Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t my hero. He was an innovator, a trailblazer, a pioneer and an inspiration, but he wasn’t my hero.
He was just one of the coolest Black men I ever heard in my life.
Without Gil Scott-Heron would rap music ever been born? Probably, but without the social consciousness of a Scott-Heron, The Last Poets and others the Black pride and positivity that was once standard in rap and now seems merely quaint.
When Scott-Heron dropped “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” he showed poets could do more than drop rhymes. That song was the soundtrack for Black pride in the Seventies.
Scott-Heron personified the cliché of the “tortured artist” and it’s sad a brother who spoke with such eloquence about the downward spiral alcohol and drug addiction leads to was pretty much wrecked due to his crack habit.
In 2009, Scott-Heron gave an interview to The Washington Post where he declared the revolution had occurred with the election of Barack Obama.
Q. In the early 1970s, you came out with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” about the erosion of democracy in America. You all but predicted that there would be a revolution in which a brainwashed nation would come to its senses. What do you think now? Did we have a revolution?
A. Yes, the election of President Obama was the revolution.
But that was televised. You said in the poem, “NBC will not be able to predict . . . or report from 29 districts. The revolution will not be televised.” But NBC and every other TV network station did just that.
The revolution was a change in thinking, people changing their hearts and minds. This country was at a crossroads and could have gone either way. But the people stopped taking whatever was being handed to them at face value; they stopped putting up with the status quo and started thinking for themselves. The revolution is a mental thing. You did not see it televised.
So what do you think of Obama so far? Already, some on the political left are accusing him of bending over so far to please the political right that he’s coming awful close to kissing his own behind, so to speak.
Give him time to make his mark. He’s like a young rapper working to find his voice. Don’t judge him by his first CD. Remember, Obama did not get us into this mess. You might not agree with his solutions, but there were no solutions before he took office.
You were paroled in May 2007 after serving 10 months for violating a plea agreement in a cocaine possession case. Before that, in 2002, you got caught with some cocaine and did time in prison. Songs like “Angel Dust” and “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” seem to have foreshadowed a drug problem, as well as health problems caused by drugs. For instance, “Home is where I live inside my white powder dreams/Home was once an empty vacuum that’s now filled with my silent screams.” Is that true?
If you meet somebody who never made a mistake, you help them start a religion. I make mistakes. I got caught with $25 worth of cocaine on an airplane in 2003 and did time for that. But I don’t see that making me out to be some Pablo Escobar. Until everybody who has a drink and drives gets their names on a list made up by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, I think they ought to leave people alone for possessing cocaine and marijuana. I’m not the guy who hit-and-runs while drunk or sneaks in your window and takes a television to feed a habit.
Scott-Heron sang on many on his albums and though he was more than adequate at that task, his Master’s degree was in his flow as a poet. Let someone else write about flowers and trees and the birds and the bees. Scott-Heron was busy trying to wake the sleepers up with gritty truths such as he laid out in “The New Deal.”
I have believed in my convictions
And have been convicted for my beliefs
Conned by the constitution
And harassed by the police.
I’ve been billed for the bill of rights
And been treated like I was wrong.
I have become a special amendment
For what included me all along.
Like “All men are created equal.”
(No amendment needed here)
I’ve contributed in every field including cotton
From Sunset Strip to Washington Square.
Back during the non-violent era.
I was the only non-violent one.
As a matter of fact there was no non-violence
’cause too many rednecks had guns.
There seems to have been this pattern
That a lot of folks failed to pick up on.
But all black leaders who dared stand up
Wuz in jail, in the courtroom or gone.
Picked up indiscriminately
By the shock troops of discrimination
To end up in jails or tied up in trails
While dirty tricks soured the nation.
I’ve been hoodwinked by professional hoods.
My ego has happened to me.
It’ll be alright, just keep things cool!”
“And take the people off the street.
We’ll settle all this at the conference table.
You just leave everything to me.”
Which gets me back to my convictions
And being convicted for my belief
’cause I believe these smiles
in three-piece suits
with gracious, liberal demeanor
took our movement off of the streets
and took us to the cleaners
In other words, we let up the pressure
And that was all part of their plan
And every day we allow to slip through our fingers
Is playing right into their hands
Oh, I know for all the young brothers and sisters, Gil Scott-Heron is one of those, “Who he?” questions and once you see the man you’ll just shake your head at that big Afro and beard and think, “Homey needs a shave and a haircut.”
But you show me a rapper today that’s worth a damn and they know they owe a debt of gratitude to Gil. He was not a rapper, but he was one of those who laid the groundwork that took spoken word and jazz singing to the beats, rhymes and flow of today’s young prophets. Does Scott-Heron deserve all the credit? Of course not. But he sure deserves his fair share of the credit.
Drugs and brushes with the law brought Scott-Heron down. He had lost most of his teeth, infected with HIV and saddled with an addiction to crack cocaine. He was unapologetic about his drug usage as he explained in a New Yorker article, “Ten to fifteen minutes of this, I don’t have pain,” he said. “I could have had an operation a few years ago, but there was an 8 percent chance of paralysis. I tried the painkillers, but after a couple of weeks I felt like a piece of furniture. It makes you feel like you don’t want to do anything. This I can quit anytime I’m ready.”
Famous last words and ones many a junkie has said before. Yet, who am I to question how another man handles his pain? Who is anyone to do so?
In 2010 he released I’m New Here and the ravages of the years and the toll they had taken on him were clear for the ear to hear and the eye to see. “Me and the Devil” is a dark video a dark song and shot without Scott-Heron appearing until the end reading his poem, “The Vulture.” He looks like hell, but the power and the passion in his voice is undiminished.
There is a lot of years and regrets between “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Me and the Devil,” but they are all the pieces of a man, as Scott-Heron’s breakthrough second album was entitled. I used to love his music back in the day, but like most of us I outgrew that kind of politically conscious and Black pride music. It seemed to hit its peak with Public Enemy and since then it’s fallen off hard.
I doubt the passage of Gil Scott-Heron will herald a new renaissance of socially conscious rappers and poets, but who knows? Every mighty oak starts off as a small sapling. Every future icon stars off scribbling in a note pad or talking to themselves in the mirror.
Godspeed, Gil Scott-Heron. Requiescat in peace.