“Young rappers, one more suggestion before I get out of your way/
But I appreciate the respect you give me and what you got to say
I’m sayin’ protect your community and spread that respect around
Tell brothas and sistas they gotta calm that bullshit down…”
The time is 1970. A few years have passed since after the Civil Rights movement in America reached its apex and resulted in legislative victories for African-Americans – but all Americans, really – through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1965. While the “Colored” and “White” signs are gone from many public establishments, there are still many Americans at the time who haven’t put aside racist thoughts and assumptions about Blacks. African-Americans had access, but still limited opportunities. And the most outspoken figureheads of the movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, were recently assassinated within years of each other. Black America is frustrated. The Black Panther Party is losing some of its fire and falling apart due to internal agendas and a focus on “I instead of we” mentalities. Black America is searching for its soul. Black America is looking for its protest voice again.
Enter Gil Scott-Heron. Scott-Heron, in a sense, could be considered the more soulful, more engaging counterpart to other protest voices that had emerged at that point in time, such as controversial radio host Petey Greene. Scott-Heron was celebrated especially because he seemed to be the personification of the anger, frustration, and feelings of post-progress stagnation amongst Blacks at the time. He blended elements of soul, jazz, and spoken word poetry to create what many consider an early form of rap music. Scott-Heron would step on stage and immediately command attention and respect in his dashiki and big afro. Accompanied by head-bobbing, finger-snapping instrumentation in the background, his subtle yet powerful voice rumbled ominously on “songs” ranging from tragic to “soapboxing” to full out militant motivation. From 1970 until about 1993, Scott-Heron flaunted his lyrical prowess on albums bearing such names as Winter in America, Pieces of a Man, and Moving Target, consistently telling the stories of the oppressed and underserved.
His best and perhaps most-known work, is a soulful track entitled “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Through pop culture references and a tone of stern finality applied to each verse, Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was pretty much the spoken word equivalent of Laurence Fishburne screaming for everyone to “WAKE UP!” on the campus of Mission College. He called out Black people’s limited attention spans at the time and over-reliance on the news and media to get their information instead of seeking out the facts themselves. “The Revolution,” Scott-Heron assured his listeners, “will put you in the driver’s seat. The revolution will be no re-run, Brothers. The Revolution will be live.” Indeed, the first time I myself heard of Scott-Heron was when I heard this particular poem played during one of the boxing match scenes in Norman Jewison’s 1999 biopic of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Other great pieces of Scott-Heron’s, often directed to societal issues at the time, include “We Almost Lost Detroit” and “Johannesburg.”
“See that gent in the wrinkled suit? He done damn near blown his cool to the bottle…”
While Scott-Heron was an amazing speaker and consistently dropped knowledge on wax, he was as much a victim of the perils he spoke of as he was an informer. Even the best amongst us have vices, and Scott-Heron’s – in an almost eerie way, analogous to the “doctor” in the last verse of his song “The Bottle” – was cocaine. On two separate occasions in 2001 and 2006, Gil Scott-Heron was arrested on drug related charges. He did, however, attempt to bounce back after being paroled in 2007. He refocused his attention on spoken word performances and worked on a novel; and in 2010, he released another album, I’m New Here, which while not commercially well-known, was acclaimed by music critics.
“… the young folks need to know, that things don’t go both ways
You can’t talk respect on every other song or just every other day…
On one song she’s your African Queen – on the next one, she’s a joke
And you ain’t said no words that I haven’t heard, but that ain’t no compliment
It only insults eight people out of ten and questions your intelligence
It’ll only magnify how shallow you are and let everybody know it…”
Yesterday, on May 26, 2011, at 62 years old, Gil Scott-Heron died. It is almost fittingly poetic that, decades later, generations still continue to enjoy manifestations of Gil Scott-Heron’s work. It’s no surprise why some consider Gil Scott-Heron’s proto-rap style as foundational to the emergence of hip-hop as a music form. To this very day, Scott-Heron’s “Revolution” poem has been employed in numerous rap songs. Rapper Kanye West was also influenced by Scott-Heron, having sampled Scott-Heron’s work for many of his own songs, such as “My Way Home” and the recent track off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “Who Will Survive in America.”
Today, Black History 24/7 remembers and celebrates the legacy of Gil Scott-Heron, pioneering spoken word artist. Let us do our very best to ensure THIS MAN’S Revolution, while not televised, is certainly twittered, facebooked, ThreadBlogged, and most importantly, LIVED.