A powerful voice was lost when Gil Scott-Heron died on 27 May this year. Scott-Heron was one of a handful of artists who managed to successfully mix music and politics to inform, entertain and educate.
Born in Chicago in 1949, his mother was a librarian and keen singer and his father, in the 1950s, was the first black footballer for Glasgow Celtic. But when they separated Scott-Heron went to live in Lincoln, Tennessee with his grandmother, a civil rights activist and musician. She had a major influence on him, buying him his first piano and introducing him to the works of Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes.
Scott-Heron wrote about her in his 2010 album I’m New Here in the track “On Coming From A Broken Home”. While in Tennessee, Scott-Heron was one of three black children chosen to attend and therefore desegregate a local white high school. When his grandmother died, Scott-Heron moved to the Bronx in New York. Early on, his writing talent was noticed. This led to him winning a place at Lincoln University, which he chose because it was where Langston Hughes had studied.
Scott-Heron’s first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (produced by Bob Thiele, who had previously worked with John Coltrane) came out in 1970 and contained the track that is probably his best known – “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” – and established his name as a militant artist passionate about social justice both within and beyond black America.
For the next decade or so, Scott-Heron released an album most years. His follow-up to Small Talk was 1971’s Pieces Of A Man, which was arranged by Johnny Pate who had worked with Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions on songs such as “Choice Of Colours”. This album contained a fuller version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, and also the song, “Lady Day and John Coltrane”, about the way that great art, and particularly music, can lift people from the toil of their everyday lives. The title track on the album addresses the impact of a father losing his son in the Vietnam War.
Most of Scott-Heron’s work was political. He wrote a number of overt protest songs such as “Johannesburg”, and he was active in a number of campaigns – not only did he bring the issue of apartheid home to many people, but he recorded the anti-nuclear song “We Almost Lost Detroit” and performed at 1979’s Musicians For Safe Energy gig.
In the early 1980s, Scott-Heron toured with Stevie Wonder to promote Wonder’s campaign for a national holiday to honour Martin Luther King and the achievements of the civil rights movement. Speaking on a US radio station in 2008, Scott-Heron said that the day was a “time for people to reflect on how far we have come, and how far we still have to go, in terms of being just people. Hopefully it will be a time for people to reflect on the folks that have done things to get us to where we are and where we’re going.”
In his later years, Scott-Heron was to succumb to the drugs and alcohol that he had sung about, and spent a number of years in jail for drugs offences. For a long time he didn’t release a record, although he went on many live tours. But in 1994 he released the Spirits album and, although it was much more introspective than a lot of his previous work, he still tried to address social issues. In the track “Message To The Messengers”, he took to task rappers who glorified a gangster lifestyle in their lyrics. It’s no accident that hip hop artists such as Chuck D from Public Enemy, Common and Talib Kweli hold Scott-Heron in such high esteem.
It would be easy to write pages about the effectiveness of Gil Scott-Heron’s work, to list the songs and quote the lyrics, and discuss their impact on generations of people struggling to make sense of and change the world. But rather than doing that, I’d say listen to his words and music. It’ll make you want to right some of the things that are wrong in this world.