Socialist Worker

Gil Scott-Heron: Poet who weathered the Winter in America

Rosa Dunn commemorates the poet, songwriter, activist, comic, orator and revolutionary performer Gil Scott-Heron who died last week.

Issue No. 2254

Pieces of a Man: Gil Scott-Heron’s breakthrough album

Pieces of a Man: Gil Scott-Heron’s breakthrough album


“The Revolution will not be Televised”, perhaps Gil Scott-Heron’s most famous song, is an attack on passivity.

Revolution is not something to watch on TV, it is something to experience: “The revolution will be no re-run brothers—the revolution will be live”.

The lyrics of this wonderful mantra echo in our memories as we see a new generation of people experiencing revolution first hand across the world.

Scott-Heron is often branded as the “Godfather of Rap”, a title he rejected, preferring to call his music “bluesology”.

He talked about the power of music to transcend inequality and remind people of the importance of standing up to injustices.

Scott-Heron’s moral code oozes from his music in his honest evaluation of the world around us.

Humility

Scott-Heron was a man with depth, humility and honesty, coupled with an instinctive belief that there must be another way, even though his life was wracked with addictions.

He was shatteringly defiant, uncompromising and unrelenting with words such as, “I’m sorry, but the government you have elected is inoperative.”

He emerged from the US Black Power and anti-war struggles of the late 1960s. But he made some of his most powerful music against the ­setbacks and defeats of the 1970s.

It’s no coincidence that one of his most admired albums is the starkly titled, Winter in America, made in 1974.

No one captured the pain as recession ravaged black America like he did. His classic song of the same title was not on the album. It came out the following year, questioning the broken, horrific and dirty history of the country.

Scott-Heron showed that writing political music didn’t emotionally stunt the ability to touch and fill the heart.

His music was frequently just ­beautiful, as human emotion spilled from his mouth, in such delicately crafted tracks as “Better Days Ahead”.

His political range was enormous.

In 1974, before it became a fashionable cause, he sang “Johannesburg”, capturing the importance of challenging and breaking South Africa’s racist apartheid regime.

His song “Three Miles Down” exposed the hardship of miners and he kept it in his set list to support ­miners when they went on strike.

He sliced the world’s hypocrisies with “Work for Peace”, stating “the only thing wrong with peace, is that you can’t make no money from it.”

He spoke of the role of capitalism in war in “Space Shuttle”.

His first album was spoken word, but from his breakthrough Pieces of a Man onward his lyrics were backed by a luscious blend of jazz and funk—in his heyday provided by his long time collaborator Brian Jackson.

He could fill a dance floor with a groove like “The Bottle”, a song about the downward spiral of alcoholism, with the repetitive beat looped illustrating the alienation and need to escape.

But he could write a feel good, uplifting tune like “I think I’ll Call it Morning”, and “Your Daddy Loves You.”

The list spans more than 15 albums, which all capture the visceral surroundings of a man who could capture insightful politics in one bar, but could ultimately harmonise his beats to the pulse of everyday life.

Problems

Scott-Heron produced little new music in the past couple of decades as he coped with his own problems.

But after a 16 year gap he returned last year with a new album titled I’m New Here.

This last album was more pensive and reflective. The tone, texture and soul reflects a man who had experienced so much.

After the album was released Scott-Heron collaborated with British remixer Jamie XX—who speaks to a younger “dubstep” generation.

These are the people that took to the streets over the future of higher education.

Anyone who has only heard of Scott-Heron through Jamie XX’s remixes of I’m New Here should do themselves a favour.

Look back over Scott-Heron’s incredible body of work. Listen to his music, read his writing and understand the power of his revolutionary art.

I am jealous of the journey you will embark upon in discovering the beauty and importance of this great man and his work. There are “Better Days Ahead”, Gil… the revolution will be live!


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Reviews
Tue 31 May 2011, 18:33 BST
Issue No. 2254
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