The Musical Legacy of Gil Scott-Heron

Last month revolutionary and renowned soul, jazz and blues artist, Gil Scott Heron, sadly passed away. Most famous for his song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Gil had a long and turbulant artistic career and life, and is seen as a key musical influence on the development of R&B and rap. His songs were not just mundane songs about nothing, but were scathing social commentary on capitalism and capitalist society. Here we post a review, written by members of Socialist Alternative, our American sister party.

In this large sense of the word, art is a handmaiden. It is not a disembodied element feeding on itself, but a function of social man indissolubly tied to his life and environment” (Leon Trotsky, Literature and Art, p37)

“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”

(Gil Scott-Heron, debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” 1970)

If the revolution had a soundtrack, Gil Scott-Heron would be track one on your iPhone, mp3 player or CD. This pioneering voice of Black art passed away on May 27, falling ill upon his return from a recent European tour in support of his final musical release I’m New Here, 2010. Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets are attributed with providing the spoken word or poetic blueprint during the late 60’s and 70’s which gave birth to rap/hip-hop.

Gil Scott-Heron’s music and political consciousness were the product of the rise of militant social struggle by the working class, poor and youth internationally, particularly the black working class, poor and youth of the African diaspora, southern, and urban America. Gil Scott’s music speaks to the reality of the black experience in racist capitalist America, using gut-bucket blues as his musical foundation. His artistic style is passionate and realistic, while his message insistently projects a reality beyond and better than today’s exploitation and oppression.

The Beginning

Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago on April 1, 1949. He was named after his father, Gilbert Heron; a Jamaican soccer star who had settled in America. Gil Scott’s mother, Bobbie, was a librarian and an accomplished singer who had once performed with the New York Oratorical Society. Gil Scott would live with his maternal grandmother up to the age of 12 in Tennessee; his parents would separate when he was two years old. When Gil Scott’s grandmother passed, he moved to New York City to live with his mother. Gil won a scholarship to a private school, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, before going on to study at historic Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Gil Scott was inspired by his grandmother and legendary Harlem poets Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Sterling Brown.

Novelist, Poet and Musical Revolutionary

Gil Scott was truly a renaissance man. He authored two novels The Vulture (1970) and The Nigger Factory (1971) before graduating from Lincoln University. He earned a Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University in creative writing and authored the collection of poems that would make up Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. His music and poetry would make him part of the growing milieu of politically and socially conscious musical artists.

If rap is “CNN for Black people,” in Chuck D’s famous formulation, Gil Scott-Heron masterminded the network’s earliest broadcasts in modern form. His landmark song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” is rooted in a revolutionary black nationalist tone. Gil Scott makes it clear that corporate commercialism and white supremacy wouldn’t destroy the revolutionary process unfolding.

“The revolution will not be brought to you by the Schaefer Award Theater and will not star Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.

The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.

The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.

The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, brother.”

The liner notes of that first album credit the influence of Malcolm X and Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton alongside that of Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. Gil Scott-Heron’s art grew out of social movements and fed back into them.

Gil Scott-Heron’s artistic style displays a realism that dances and pulses with righteous anger. It is an anger that can sound cool, an anger that radiates power for the powerless, a surprisingly versatile anger that meditates, analyzes, and responds consciously to events. Listen to “Pieces of a Man,” where a torn-up layoff notice scattered on the floor becomes a metaphor for the human spirit threatened by a capitalist world that treats humans as mere commodities. Don’t misinterpret the bluesy lament of the outro, “I saw him go to pieces … He was always such a good man,” as weakness. No, it speaks to a situation where protest against dehumanizing conditions becomes the main way to affirm humanity.

Gil Scott would team up with pianist Brain Jackson, developing the Black and Blues and Midnight Band. The sound and message was powerful and profound, producing 20 albums over the course of Gil Scott’s career with thought-provoking tracks like; “The Bottle,” “It’s Your World,” “Pieces of a Man,” “Winter in America,” “Free Will,” “Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman,” and “Save the Children.” Gil Scott’s music was politically relevant to the times and linked to activism.

Gil Scott participated at the Musicians United for Safe Energy’s “No Nukes” benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden, offering his song “We Almost Lost Detroit,” that recounts the near-devastation of that classic city of the American auto industry by a narrowly averted nuclear disaster. And that song’s title takes on a new meaning, particularly as we witness today a dwindling population and economic collapse of the city by capitalism’s tsunami of poverty, racism and corporate greed. In 1985, he appeared on the all-star anti-apartheid album, “Sun City”: Gil Scott’s 1976 song “Johannesburg” would become an anthem against white minority rule (Apartheid) in South Africa and the struggle for liberation in that country. Gil Scott’s music created a tapestry of sounds from the blues, jazz, African and Latin polyrhythmic percussion, and soul. The bongo drums on his albums come across as a backbeat reporting the heart of the struggle for all those with ears to hear.

One of his most critically acclaimed albums, Winter in America, was released in 1974, as the strongest waves of the revolutionary tide of the ’60s and ’70s were already ebbing into the Nixonian Reaction. The U.S. military had finally withdrawn from Vietnam, and other institutional gains from the movement could be seen in the form of legislation like the Clean Air Act of 1970 or the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But following the capitalist recession of 1973, the Western world was mired in stagflation: inflation coupled with economic stagnation and high unemployment. The title track laments those dynamic parts of America that “never had a chance to grow.”

The author of songs dealing head-on with the abuse of drugs and alcohol, songs like “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust,” went through his own struggles with substance abuse in his later years. It is difficult not to see this personal struggle as an expression of the historical demobilization and depoliticization that overtook the movements that meant so much to him. With the movement’s ebb, it is almost as if the world fell out from around his music. Still, Gil Scott-Heron’s voice continued to project the strength, the anger, the humanity and the beauty of those struggles up through the years to our own time.

The Godfather of Rap

“You can go into Ginsberg and the Beat poets and Dylan, but Gil Scott-Heron is the manifestation of the modern word… He and the Last Poets set the stage for everyone else.” (Chuck D of Public Enemy, The New Yorker, 2010).

The spoken word and poetry of Gil Scott is rooted in the human and black experience. Although he would always prefer the independently crafted term “bluesologist,” Gil Scott is looked upon as a founding father of Rap/Hip-Hop because of spoken word gems like “Whitey on the Moon.” He has been sampled by artists like Kanye West and Common, inspired the political and social rap of MC’s like Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Rap/Hip-Hop flows from the intersection of black workers, poor and youth from America the South Bronx and the Caribbean. Its growth and corporate America’s stranglehold on the music and artists would create a multi-billion industry controlled by four major music labels: Universal Music Group, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, EMI Group, Warner Music Group and the ruling elite.

The foundation of the hip-hop is rooted in the post civil rights/black power movement, the end of the post-World War II economic upswing and the years of right-wing backlash starting with the Carter administration following through to the Obama presidency.

Rap, as a sub-culture, allowed the youth of all ethnic backgrounds to express themselves politically, socially and culturally exposing the state of affairs in the communities of color like police brutality, poor housing, de-industrialization of major cities and the lost of manufacturing and textile jobs.

That popularity led to a marketing plan to promote the “street”. Big business sought to profit by dictating what is hip and cool in communities of color.

Gil Scott was an astute observer of the corporate dominance over art form and artist. He marked the pursuit of fame and the rise of “criminality” in the music and spoke to the social responsibility of artists to the community and to art. See his 1994 album Spirits, especially the song “Message to the Messengers”:

“We got respect for you rappers and the way they be free-weighin’

But if you’re gon’ be teachin’ folks things, make sure you know what you’re sayin’

Older folks in our neighborhood got plenty of know-how

Remember if it wasn’t for them, you wouldn’t be out here now

And I ain’t comin’ at you with no disrespect

All I’m sayin’ is that you damn well got to be correct

Because if you’re gonna be speakin’ for a whole generation

And you know enough to try and handle their education

Make sure you know the real deal about past situations

It ain’t just repeatin’ what you heard on the local TV stations…”

The U.S. government’s murder, repression and frame-ups of key leaders of the Black freedom movement had brought a chill to the politics of Black liberation. A feeling of isolation took its toll on the Black community. Maybe this is part of the reason that Gil Scott-Heron never allowed himself to rest comfortably with the title of “Godfather of Rap,” as a lesser spirit may have done. Instead, in “Message to the Messengers,” Scott-Heron issued an exhortation to the new generation of Black artists to take an independent stand: “We raised too much hell/When they was shooting us down/So they started poisoning our minds/Tryin’ to jerk us all around.” He acknowledges the younger generation of artists as important educators of their community and warns them that, with that responsibility, they had better be “correct” about their knowledge of how history goes down.

Why is Gil Scott-Heron Relevant Today?

Gil Scott-Heron’s voice remains contemporary because we are still living with the problems that the movements of his generation were not able to fully solve. Gil Scott-Heron looked ahead at an America dominated by a conservative political resurgence riding on a capitalism of deindustrialization: the rise of the multinational corporate conglomerates and the big financiers that have orchestrated the dismantling of good union jobs in the U.S. in favor of the global race to the bottom, the replacement of production with speculative bubbles.

In the 1981 piece “B Movie” – Scott-Heron’s account of the Reagan administration – we get a picture of a nation mired in socioeconomic malaise, desperate to return to an idealized past that never existed in the first place. The analysis could open up a discussion on the recession-driven rise of the Tea Party today: “This used to be a country/Where everybody looked forward to tomorrow, /And all of a sudden/It became ‘The Way We Were’ and ‘The Summer of ’42’/and them good old boys them good old boys them good old boys … You don’t have to think about how you feel/Just keep repeating that none of this is real.”

It is significant that the musical precursor of rap stands rooted in the soil of the ’60s and ’70s, the last great era of protest movements in the U.S. It is a political landscape formed by the massive Civil Rights Movement, carried forward by the Black Panther Party and the Revolutionary Union Movements in Detroit, and organically tied to the cultural flowering of the Black Arts Movement. If Gil Scott’s voice sounds like a blast of fresh air from another time, it is because, since the ‘60s and ‘70s, the U.S. has been lacking the mass struggles for social justice and liberation that fed and fed from his art.

Today, the class struggle has engulfed the Middle East, North Africa and Europe against poverty, racism, cutbacks and mass unemployment. It is within these conditions a new generation will find the work, words and music of Gil Scott-Heron. It will be out of these struggles that artists and working people will create art and music that connect to their realities under a global capitalism that’s in decline, forging a vision for a new world, a system based on solidarity, justice and international socialism. Let’s give brother Gil Scott-Heron the last word, from the 1976 song “It’s Your World”:

“The ground beneath my feet

I know was made for me

there is not any one place where I belong.

My spirit’s meant to be free

and soon now everyone will see

life was made for us to be what we wanna be!

…music of life fills my soul

music of love makes me feel whole

as human history unfolds before my eyes.

My spirit’s meant to be free and soon now everyone’s will be.”