The Devil and Gil Scott-Heron

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.

Gil vs. the Devil. The Devil won.

Reparations for the Soul of Gil Scott-Heron

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.

Keeping the Faith: Happy Birthday, Barack

It almost slipped my mind…

Barack Obama turns 49 years young today.  Happy Birthday, Mr. President.

Your “friends” in the Republican National Committee  marked the occasion by setting up a website to send mocking birthday cards out to…well, whomever it is that patronizes the Republican National Committee website.   Guess RNC Chairman Michael “Big Pimpin'” Steele took time out from ducking out on the National Association of Black Journalists  and hiding $7 million in debts to have a little fun at the president’s expense.

The president’s polls numbers are sliding downhill, the economy is sluggish, jobs are scarce,  the prospects for the Democrats in November look rather dim and the war in Afghanistan drags on with no end in sight.

It’s no the best of times for Barack Obama.

Then again, whomever said this was going to be easy?

I’m pretty much of the mind that we’re just right about where I thought we might be with Obama.   The expectations were always too high.  The problems too many in number.  The  intransigence and the vilification by the Right too fierce.   The racism too entrenched.    Trying to undo eight years of Bush-Cheney dickery couldn’t be done in two years and probably not completely even in two terms if  the president is reelected, far from a certainty at this point.

But it’s nothing worth losing sleep over.   I could spend a lot of time and effort going down the list of disappointments the president has served up his supporters.   That doesn’t mean I’m feeling any sort of “buyer’s remorse.”   All things being equal, I’d pull the lever for Obama all over again.

Without reservation, qualification or reservation.

Whenever I get a little wobbly on Obama, I go refer back to what Gil Scott-Heron, the musical genius  behind such classics as  “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”  one of the inspirational figures of rap said in an interview with The Washington Post after Obama took office.

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.
Absolutely and 100 percent right.   Anyone who thinks things are bad now is suffering from a severe case of short-term memory loss.  Things were worse under George W. Bush and his corrupt, evil reign of error and terror.    Obama has to do better, but he can’t do any worse than what we had before him.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President.  Hope the big 5-0 is an even happier one for you and the nation.   A few disappointments is no reason to lose faith.

Scott-Heron says Obama's election was the revolution he spoke of.