It has been a bit annoying how the death of a man who gave so much of himself trying to push Black folks forward has become a secondary story to another Black man trying to drag us back.
Gil Scott-Heron was political but he was no politician. Herman Cain is political, but shows no capacity to be a politician. That’s a serious failing for someone who says he wants to be president.
Why is it for all this week I’ve had to hear all this crap.about how a Black conservative and fringe candidate whose primary aim seems to be absolving the Tea Party from charges of racism while a documentary about Gil Scott-Heron still hasn’t seen the light of day in America for nearly eight years?
In a few years, Cain will be a minor footnote when books are written about the 2012 presidential campaign. Scott-Heron’s legacy as a poet and griot is firmly set as the scores of articles and eulogies following his death are evidence of. Facebook and Twitter blew up with video links, tributes and shout-outs to the brother who predicted a revolution was coming.
There’s just one problem with all this. Scott-Heron was something of a mess in the last decades of his life. In no way does that diminish his grandeur as an artist, but one must be honest in the assessment of his life and times and the evidence is in: Scott-Heron was a drug addicted, disheveled shell when he died.
If Herman Cain is a warning of the dangers of selling out, Gil Scott-Heron is a warning of what happens when your demons run you down.
The director of the 2004 documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: A Film about Gil Scott-Heron was shocked by the state he found Gil in. Don Letts would find himself frustrated with the obstacles he faced trying to tell Gil’s story. Letts told the Guardian in 2003 about the unique problems that come when the subject of your film is an unreliable and erratic addict. Scott-Heron’s drug addiction was in full bloom in ’03 and he didn’t put on any airs of struggling with his demons.
“It was strained between us but it wasn’t personal,” he says. “It’s just that his life is strained generally. He’s trying to keep it together whilst the whole time having this fucking gorilla on his back as Chuck [Public Enemy’s Chuck D, a contributor to the film] puts it.”
In the UK, Letts’ reputation as a film-maker goes before him but Scott-Heron initially seemed unimpressed. “I’m not used to being dissed by anyone,” says Letts. “At the start of the two-and-a-half weeks we were over there I said to him ‘by the time this has finished you’re going to hate my guts’. Within about a week he was hanging up the phone on me – something which no-one has ever done to me in my life! But I wasn’t going to let the superficiality of what’s going on now cloud my view of what he’d done. This guy put out an album and two books by the time he was 19 in a climate where there was no black cultural back-up at all. He was just treading new ground.”
Nonetheless, the very logistics of working with someone who had a gorilla on their back were far from easy. “There were things like waiting for two-and-a-half days to do the interview. I usually like to make my problems my assets but he pushed it to the last degree. It was all I could do to get him to sit still. For, like, two hours!”
Letts’ difficulties aside, this is an excellent documentary and shame on PBS, BET, and TV1 for not picking it up and airing it. The television networks don’t mind funneling reality TV, crappy rap videos, dumb comedies, dance competitions, singing competitions and Negro foolishness competitions into the homes of 35 million Black people, but God forbid they actually tell a story worth telling. This documentary definitely deserves an airing in Scott-Heron’s homeland.
Yet there’s no sugar coating the unpleasant fact that Scott-Heron is receiving all this long overdue love based upon who he was instead of what he became. The Gil Scott-Heron of the late Seventies and Eighties was a deep brother full of beats, rhymes and rational reasoning. The Gil Scott-Heron of the new millennium was a hopeless addict who alienated friends, family and fans while becoming a slave to the very vices he had once cautioned others to avoid.
We should remember Scott-Heron, but we shouldn’t shut out the unpleasant realities of how hard he had fallen.
I had heard about the profile that ran The New Yorker last year It had become notorious as the article where Gil Scott-Heron smoked crack in front of the interviewer. I didn’t want to read it. I knew it was bad. I figured it would be painful. I thought it would hurt.
And I was right. It did hurt, but Gil was the one in pain. I could always turn the page or click away to happier and sunnier subjects. Nobody enjoys watching someone whose artistry and activism you have admired end up as a zombified shadow of himself.
Unhappily, that’s the price you pay for thinking you can freeze a deeply flawed human being in a moment of time and think he will stay that way forever. The music and poetry and words of Gil Scott-Heron are immortal. Nothing diminishes the power and the glory of “The Bottle,” “Johannesburg,” “Lady Day and John Coltrane” and of naturally, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
Not even Gil Scott-Heron himself.