Revolution #235, June 12, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron—Poet, Musician and Storyteller of the Oppressed

Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies and Hooterville Junction
will no longer be so damned relevant
and women will no longer care if Dick finally got down with Jane
on Search for Tomorrow
because Black people will be in the streets looking for
A Brighter Day
The revolution will not be televised.

From—The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Every now and then when the news drops it makes the world's heart skip a beat. On May 27 Gil Scott-Heron, a poet, musician and storyteller whose art changed the world, died sadly and quietly in a New York City hospital. Over the course of his life Gil Scott-Heron produced music and poetry that became one of the voices of rebellion in the U.S. and spread that vibe around the world as well.

 Born in 1949, Gil's life was shaped by—and in turn, helped shape—the upheaval of the times. He aimed to speak truth to power—and to the powerless as well. In songs like the Bicentennial Blues and H2OGate Blues, Gil used his remarkable wit, sense of irony and poetic spirit to skewer the system and the rulers, hold them up for ridicule and lay bare their ugliness to the world. He could have you laughing your ass off and then twist things up just a bit to make you step back and recognize some truth.

Take a listen to a little piece like No Knock (referring to the law that allows police to kick down the doors of people's homes without a warrant or warning): "'No Knock!' The Man will say, 'to keep that man from beatin' his wife!'/ 'No Knock!' The Man will say, 'to keep people from hurtin' themselves!'/ No-knockin', head rockin', enter shockin', shootin', cussin'/ killin', cryin', lyin' and bein' white!/ No knocked on my brother, Fred Hampton,/ bullet holes all over the place!/ No knocked on my brother, Michael Harris,/ and jammed a shotgun against his skull!/ For my protection?/ Who's gonna protect me from you?"

When he spoke of the oppressed it was with a different voice—one filled with love, and sometimes impatience, but always with a solid hatred for the hell people are forced to live under. Songs like Pieces of a Man, The Bottle, Paint It Black, and Whitey on the Moon painted the stories of Black people in America the same way Romare Bearden told the stories on canvas and August Wilson told them on stage.

In the notes he wrote to the 1975 album he made with the Midnight Band and Brian Jackson, The First Minute of a New Day, Gil spoke about living in a time of shattered dreams and shocked citizens and wrote, "…mid winter/ there is a revolution going on in America/the World; a shifting in the winds/vibrations, as disruptive as an actual earth-tremor, but it is happening in our hearts. There is a revolution going on in America/the World; a change as swift as blackening skies when the rains come, as fresh and clear as the air after the rain. We need change. The seeds of this revolution were planted hundreds of years ago; in slave ships, in cotton fields, in tepees, in the souls of brave men. The seeds were watered, nurtured and bloom now in our hands as we rock our babies."

At some point Gil began to target capitalism to a degree and used razor sharp poetry to savagely expose the roots of America in slavery and genocide in songs like Bicentennial Blues.

In Winter in America, Gil wrestles with the ebb of the struggle of the 1960s and what the future might hold. In the notes from Winter in America Gil wrote, "Winter is a metaphor; a term not only used to describe the season of ice, but the period of our lives through which we are travelling. In our hearts we feel that spring is just around the corner; a spring of brotherhood and united spirits among people of color. Everyone is moving, searching. There is a restlessness within our souls that keeps us questioning, discovering and struggling against a system that will not allow us space and time for fresh expression." In the song Must Be Something Gil speaks to the changing times in 1975 and especially the ebb in the struggle beginning to emerge, beginning the song with "Must be somethin'/Must be somethin' we can do/Must be somethin'/Must be somethin' we can do/We didn't come all this way just to give up/We didn't struggle all this time to say we've had enough/Had enough." And answers at the end of the song with, "Tell you somethin'/ Tell you somethin' you can do/Keep on movin'/Keep on movin' for what's true!"

Gil made no bones about how he felt about sellout "leaders" of Black people. In songs like Push Comes to Shove and The New Deal he calls them: "Which brings me back to my convictions/ and being convicted for my beliefs/ 'cause I believe these smiles/ in three piece suits/ with gracious, liberal demeanor/ took our movement off the streets/ and took us to the cleaners."

Gil was a revolutionary rooted in the politics of Black Nationalism with conflicting understandings of the roots of oppression, and a mixed record on the oppression of women—but with an embrace that took in the oppressed all over the world. Alien (Hold on to Your Dream) from his great—but terribly underpublicized—album 1980 is one of the most moving songs about the hellish life of the undocumented immigrants forced to seek work in El Norte there is—and it's a song that should be played loud and often in the face of all the current attempts to pit Black people in the U.S. against undocumented immigrants. When Jose Campos Torres, a Chicano man in Houston, Texas, was murdered by the police—who received a $1 fine for their crime—and Chicano people in Houston rebelled, Gil wrote one of the most powerful songs against police brutality ever. And two years later when the Iranian people overthrew the Shah of Iran, Gil celebrated with the song Shah Mot (The Shah is Dead/Checkmate), again from his album 1980.

In Johannesburg, Gil brought home the struggle of the people in South Africa against the racist system of official segregation known as apartheid—a system that held the black people in South Africa to be no more than beasts of burden for the white, settler-colonialist regime. Many people in the U.S. at the time had no idea what was going on in South Africa but would find themselves leaving his concert with the refrain "What's the word? Johannesburg!" etched into their brain. In 2010 Gil was scheduled to perform in Israel and when activists asked him to cancel the tour because playing in Israel was the same as playing in South Africa under the apartheid regime, Gil canceled to stand with the Palestinian people.

He sang about the dangers of nuclear power in a world like this, including at a major "No Nukes" concert at Madison Square Garden held by Musicians United for Safe Energy shortly after the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.

Gil Scott-Heron refused to be boxed in, he had a broadness of mind that thrived in the complexity, irony, humor, tragedy, oppression and revolution of human life on earth. He drew the inspiration for his music and poetry from many wells. He saw his art as part of a great musical river flowing through the world. Gil called himself a "Bluesologist" and among the scores of people he often cited as his influences were Richie Havens, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, the Last Poets, Oscar Brown Jr., Jose Feliciano, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Nina Simone and Brian Jackson, the pianist/keyboardist/flutist and producer who teamed up with Gil in college and worked with him for more than a decade.

One element of jazz that Gil incorporated into his music and poetry was improvisation—he could take off on a verbal riff that rivaled any mind-bending improvisational solo found in jazz or freestyle rhyming cipher in hip-hop. His music has been sampled by many hip-hop artists over the years, and Gil felt a certain responsibility to counsel rappers, speaking to a new generation of youth. In 1994's Message to the Messengers, Gil put his arm around the shoulders of the rappers who came behind him and wrestled with them about the content and outlook of their art, challenging them to rise up against the system and the culture it produced rather than go along with it.

There was a private tragic aspect to Gil's life, a decades-long addiction problem that paralleled the long winter that did weigh heavily on the people of the U.S. over the last few decades. And at a certain point that addiction also became a way to deal with the pain he suffered from health problems including being HIV positive. Gil also spent much of the first decade of the 21st century in and out of jail on drug-related charges. In 2010 Gil released his first album in 16 years, I'm New Here, a deeply personal look at how he's lived his life and the possibility of change.

Gil once explained that his poetry came out of music and he then made his music sound like words. And in that context he brought to life the lives of Black people in America and the oppressed everywhere. When he sang/spoke his art, it bent the air, found its way to your ears and wove itself through the folds in your brain, eventually dropping down to embrace your heart. And in the end it caused us all to look at things differently and for many to join in the quest for revolution and an end to the madness. He will be sorely missed.

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