Gil Scott Heron
— Kim D. Hunter
You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised
THOSE WORDS, AMONG the most famous uttered by him, accompanied by congas, ushered Gil Scott Heron into the public consciousness. Perhaps his best known work, it was not his best. But even though the track and the album are marred and dated by its sexism (“hairy armed women’s liberationists”), homophobia (“The Subject Was Faggots”), and references to TV ads that haven’t been seen since the days of the rotary dial phone, the essential message of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is still relevant: the revolution can be commercialized.
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was the first track from his first album, “Small Talk at 125th Street and Lenox.” It was released in 1970 when he was 21. Scott-Heron had already written a novel, The Vulture, and would go on to write another, The Nigger Factory, and three books of poetry. He released 24 albums between 1970 and 2010. Most of them and the most significant among them were release in the ’70s including the aforementioned “Small Talk,” “Winter in America” and the “First Minute of New Day.”
The music carried his words to audiences he may not have reached otherwise, but he was always essentially a writer. He managed to do what few writers do, impact and imbue public consciousness with political awareness if not political will. Though his music like his voice had a limited range, his writing especially as he evolved became wider and deeper.
Gil Scott Heron made a living from espousing revolution. He did it through poetry and music, laying the foundation along with the Last Poets for what would later be called rap. And he managed to do all that while battling addictions and eventually HIV infection. Some of his most vivid work is not overtly political, but about the experience of drug addiction. The lines below come from the track “Home is Where the Hatred Is” released in 1971.
You say kick it, quit it
Kick it, quit it
But, Lord, did you ever try
To turn your sick soul inside out
So the world can watch you die?
His singing voice broke, failed to carry the note, the same way Billie Holiday’s voice broke and for some of the same reasons. He did not have Billie’s sound, subtlety or flexibility, and in the end he sounded more like Bob Dylan to whom he was often compared but differed from greatly as a writer. But like Dylan and Holiday he used his limited vocal range to great effect and could never hide what he’d been through.
The title of his last album released early in 2010, “I’m New Here,” was more than ironic because he seems to have known it would be his last record. It is effectively a last testament, if not a will. The first and last tracks, “On Coming from a Broken Home” Parts 1 & 2, are bookends that chronicle his upbringing and praise those who raised him. Between those tracks he speaks and sings over sparse acoustic and electronic music on tracks like “Where did the Night Go?”
He jokingly laments his karma, “I have a rather large bill coming due.” Last but certainly not least he brings razor sharp poetry to bear witness to his own and others’ trials and tribulation on tracks like “Your Soul and Mine.” “I’m New Here” is one of the best records released last year although it got virtually no play. It is the most soulful and effective electric realization of the blues since Jimi Hendrix.
But this recording differs sharply in tone and content from the more outwardly focused and overtly revolutionary work of the ’70s like “The First Minute of New Day,” with lyrics like “Trying to get some place in the human race; Oh how we need to see Black babies smile.”
Even when he was contemplative during this period, he was focused on the world. One detail that always sticks out for me in “We Almost Lost Detroit,” the chilling account of the near meltdown of the Fermi nuclear plant near Detroit, is this: “The sheriff of Monroe County had sho nuff disaster on his mind,” putting us in the shoes of someone charged with public safety in the midst of a potential apocalypse.
I was privileged to interview GSH on the radio. If he was the father of rap, he didn’t acknowledge paternity. He referred to it as “party music.” I didn’t press on the likes of overtly political artist like Paris or Poor Righteous Teachers, to say nothing of Public Enemy. This was back in the ’90s before the 1994 release of his recording “Spirits.” The standout track was “Message to the Messengers” where, as an elder, he speaks directly and with no condescension to young artists/activists.
By the time of the “Spirits” release, the torch had already been passed from the likes of Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets to the conscious rappers calling for rebellion. Gangsta rap was in the ascendency and perhaps its nihilistic materialism contrasted so deeply with political hip hop that Heron realized and or accepted how connected he was to the latter. I like to take “Message to Messengers” and “I’m New Here” together. The combination shows an artist committed to face his worst fears and foibles, and our own, and to push for rebellion and hope in the face of it all.
July/August 2011, ATC 153