Gilbert "Gil" Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron was one of the voices of my Progressive conscience. Although he was far more to the left than most. I have moderated and become more Conservative as I have gotten older. I didn’t agree with all of his positions of course, but he was so big that it didn’t matter.
I first discovered Gil Scott-Heron in the late 1980’s during the brief resurgence of the Black consciousness movement, of which I was in tune with at the time. Carlton Ridenhour was probably responsible for that introduction…. I can’t recall exactly. But it was definitely during that period. But I didn’t really dive into his music until later, in the 1990’s, when I began to really study the history of music. He only grew on me from there. I wasn’t impressed with the “Godfather of Rap” nonsense…. Which is a title that he actually didn’t want. In fact, he is quoted in the New York Times giving a rather humorous response to that suggestion. Yet the media (including print media) keeps repeating this misinformation. I didn't like him for his connection to Rap, but in spite of it. It has been highly annoying to hear him being branded with that label repeatedly. Message to reporters who have no idea about music and musicians from the Black American experience - ask an enthusiast, amateur musicologist, or academic familiar with the artist before writing anything.
I also didn’t care for the militant label. What I liked most about Gil Scott Heron was his vision, musicianship, songwriting, and the fact that he felt free and told it like he saw it. I also was impressed by the fact that he never sold out…. Meaning he never put the pursuit of commercial success over his craft and the need to be a voice for the voiceless and the invisible. There are not too many of these kinds of artists around anymore…. And there have not been many throughout modern history, excluding the great bluesmen. At least there have not been many like this who had a national stage. Dylan comes to mind… Joan Baez, Marvin Gaye as well (just so happened the “What’s Going On” album went big…and that was partly because Marvin Gaye had already been established as a world phenomenon by the early 70’s when the album was completed. But the point is… Marvin Gaye had to fight with Motown to do a socially conscious album). Others include Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, Odetta, and a few others. With the exception of Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, the vast majority of artists in this vein don’t become huge commercially. They sacrifice (some more than others) the trappings of fame and fortune in order to respond to another calling. That is what was most impressive to me about Gil Scott-Heron. Here was a man, an immensely talented artist and songwriter, who could have had more commercial success had he chose that route. Just on his writing ability alone he could have gotten a nice Sr. writing gig at Motown or Philadelphia International. He could have taken the road paved with gold, but instead chose to take the narrower route, barely paved at all. You would be hard pressed to find artists like this today who have another calling. Unfortunately, the era of the Nina Simone’s and the Gil Scott-Heron’s is passing, as consciousness in music is fading.
Gil Scott-Heron (at his height) represented a time in Black culture when there was a Black culture worthy of our attention and examination. He represented a time when it was not only OK to embrace being Black, but it felt good. It was a time when you could be proud to be Black.... not embarrassed. You didn't have to hate it. It was a period, post-MLK and post civil rights act, when Blacks were just starting to make real strides in terms of improving their socio-economic, political, and educational positions. There were reasons to be proud and hopeful. I can't say that the pride is there for me today in nearly the same way. The image of Blacks has taken a beating... much of the work that the civil rights pioneers did to restore and boost the Black American image has been squandered. We have the likes of BET, Beyonce, Rihanna (and others... pick just about any female Rap/R&B act) to thank for that, along with the Rap culture. I think most regular readers should know how I feel about rappers.... so I won't rehash. But with only a few exceptions, I put them somewhere in between child molesters on the low end & con artists on the high end.
His vision was prophetic. The 'Winter in America' that he wrote about…. We are in it right now. In it, he lays out the consequences of a nation with misguided priorities….one that invests in war, but won’t invest nearly as much in its people, that spends more for killing than for educating its children, one that facilitates greed in the private sector (ie Wall Street) but fails when it comes to facilitating justice and fair play for working people. It is definitely Winter. In fact, we are still in the blizzard that hit us back in September, 2008. ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’? That’s a song about nuclear energy. (Let’s not forget Chernobyl and the world is still dealing with Fukushima). In ‘We Beg Your Pardon’ he was talking about the crooks who escaped from Watergate with a slap on the wrist, but he could have just as easily been referring to the political bullies in the Bush Administration who misused their positions or to the Wall Street crooks who left the scene of their crimes unscathed, while the rest of the Country has been forced to deal with the consequences. He was ahead of his time. Yet as he served as a messenger he also served as an example of the frailties & vulnerabilities of man. He had his own demons and addictions that dogged him. Most of the really great artists had something that dogged them…. Drugs, mental illness…. alcoholism…insecurities…family problems… something. Gil Scott was no exception. These things serve to make these great artists even more authentic. It shows that they are down in the muck of life right along with the rest of us…and Gil Scott-Heron never put himself above those who were listening to his music. When I hear about the jackasses in entertainment today…with their entourages, tour trailers, demands for accommodations, I am both amused and dismayed. They have no sense of a higher purpose or higher calling at all. Money is the God or higher calling that they serve…. Material things. That’s basically it for the vast majority of today’s entertainers. In a nutshell, they f______ make me sick. This is the main reason I don’t watch much empty-v. Although some of their social programming has gotten better. All in all, it still represents a dying culture.
My favorite Gil Scott-Heron album would have to be ‘Pieces of a Man’. This is a masterpiece. One of the best albums I have ever heard. I would put it on par with Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On‘, Marley’s ‘Exodus’ or ‘Catch A Fire’, or Stevie Wonder’s ‘Innervisions’. The only real difference between ‘Pieces of a Man’ and these other masterworks is that the others are much more well known, and had more reach. Here is a partial discography with his most important albums. If I had to pick 12 favorites, they would be:
1. Winter In America
2. We Almost Lost Detroit
3. Pieces of a Man
4. Home is Where the Hatred Is
5. I Think I’ll Call It Morning
6. The Bottle
7. It’s Your World
8. Save The Children
9. Back Home
10. B Movie
11. Get Out of The Ghetto Blues
12. Prayer for Everybody
Remembrance from NPR
Another blog remembrance
Vocals by Victor Brown of Scott-Heron's and Brian Jackson's Midnight Band