Gil Scott-Heron was more than the 'Godfather of Rap'
The Gil Scott-Heron that showed up at the radio studio in Los Angeles for the scheduled interview with me in the mid-1970s was not at all like the man I expected. The Heron I expected was a hard edged, posturing, rhetoric spouting black militant. Instead Gil was soft spoken, had an easy laugh, and was witty.
The interview was less an interview about his music and his recently released album Winter in America than his probing me about how conditions were for blacks in the city, police problems, and the organizations fighting for change. Heron was in Los Angeles on a performance and promotional tour for the album. I even forgot for a moment that I was talking to one of the premier musical artists of the day but felt I was discussing the political and social issues of the day with a social scientist.
Nearly four decades later, it seems and sounds odd to read and hear the tributes and remembrances of Heron since his death that exclusively focus on two things. One is his fast paced, hard edged, take no prisoners signature single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The other is to label him “the Godfather of Rap.” Neither of these do justice to Heron. The spoken word “Revolution” was hardly the first or the hardest hitting musical homage to the spirit of black radicalism of the times.
In fact, by the time “Revolution” hit the airwaves in the early 1970s, black singers, jazz musicians, and spoken word poets had been pouring out incendiary black radical lyrics, sounds, and poetry for several years. The rap cadences were pronounced in many of their works. In the decades before the 1960s, legions of black jazz, bee bop, and blues singers “rapped”, scatted, and hooped in their songs.
The irony is that Heron took great pains to distance himself from many of the rap artists that purportedly were influenced by him. He decried their resort to shock, demeaning, and degrading lyrics and words, and their lust for the bling and opulence, at the expense of socially grounded and edgy lyrics that blasted oppression and injustice.
Heron ’s true importance and legacy was that he was the textbook liberated spirit, a musical social and political griot who refused to compromise or tone down his scathing political attacks on the establishment. Heron didn’t just hector, pick at and tweak the establishment to protest racism and the struggles against injustice. He was a thought provoking musical educator. And nothing was off limits. He railed at the pardon of Richard Nixon on “We Beg Your Pardon.” He lashed out at government lies, deceit and corruption in the Watergate scandal on “”H2O Gate Blues.”
He was outraged at the murder of Jose Campos Torres, an army vet murdered by two Houston police officers, on “Jose Campos Torres.” He took a shot at the spending on space exploration with so many problems on Earth on “Space Shuttle.” He mocked America’s bicentennial hoopla in 1976 on “Bicentennial Blues.” He lambasted prison abuses following the Attica prison uprising on “The Prisoner.”
His landmark album Winter in America was at both a grim, bitter, look at racial and political oppression in America and optimistic call for the forces of hope and change to renew the struggle against it. His equally signature From South Africa to South Carolina forcefully and brilliantly linked the struggles of African and African-Americans against apartheid , racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism. To Heron, the struggles were one and the same. The oppressor was one and the same, and those struggling against it shared a common bond.
The other mark of Heron’s genius was that he did not just wage a bitter lyrical battle against the purveyors of oppression. He did it with style, wit and humor. There was a sort of impishness in his satirizing and poking fun at everyone from Nixon to the mainstream civil rights leaders of the day.
The humor in his lyrics was so infectious that even the Urban League’s Whitney Young would have had to chuckle at this line in the “Revolution” and “There will be no slow motion or still life of Whitney Young being run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.” Or NAACP’s Roy Wilkins might have smiled at this line in “Revolution,” “There will be no still life of Roy Wilkins strolling through Watts in a red, green and black liberation jump suit that he had been saving for just the proper occasion.” Heron’s thunderbolts against oppression were rough, but one never got the sense that there was any mean-spiritedness in them.
In later years, he battled his own demons, drug addiction, and incarceration, and for a long stretch disappeared from the musical scene. But he never forgot his mission. It was simple. He wanted to tell a story of injustice and those who waged that struggle against injustice. He had the great gift to tell that story with passion, toughness, beauty and humor. We owe him a deep debt of gratitude for sharing that gift with us. That indeed can’t be televised.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson