Gil Scott-Heron, often called the “Godfather of Rap”, won a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in February – a recognition for a radical career that fearlessly spoke truth to power and held Africa and African emancipation as a priority. Leslie Goffe, who has recently written a book on the protest singer and poet, explains why Scott-Heron was, and still is, so significant.
For those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, Gil Scott-Heron, the protest singer and poet who died last year, was our “own black shining Prince”. Some people called him “the Godfather of Rap”, because his spoken word and poems were clearly so influential on the rap music scene. Others called him “the black Bob Dylan” because he, like Dylan, shamed America in song. He was also known as “Black America’s Bob Marley” because he, like Marley, spoke up for Africans at home and abroad.
“There is a revolution going on in America/the world,” Scott-Heron stated on his 1975 album The First Minute of a New Day. He added: “[There is] a shifting in the winds/vibrations, as disruptive as an actual earth tremor, but it is happening in our hearts.”
Scott-Heron, on whom I have just written a book, Gil Scott-Heron: A father and son story, was the closest thing my generation – born toolate for the “Swinging Sixties” and having to make do, instead, with the insipid 70s and 80s – had to a Malcolm X, assassinated in 1964, or a Stokely Carmichael, who left the US for exile in Africa in 1969, disheartened at the battered state of Black Power in America.
But while the revolution in the US was over for some, for Gil Scott-Heron and his musical partner Brian Jackson and their Midnight Band, it was just the beginning – the 1970s representing the first minute of a new day. Describing himself as the “minister of information”, he set about entertaining and educating, through song, a generation consumed by consumerism and addled, and made apathetic, by American pop culture and its chief agent, television.
“You will not be able to stay home, brother,” Scott-Heron warns in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, his popular 1970 poem with its rapid-fire, spoken-word style. “You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out,” Scott-Heron adds, chastising the apathetic, “because the revolution will not be televised.”
This was a man who did not sing sentimental love songs nor tell people to get down and boogie, boogie, boogie. He railed against “plastic people with plastic minds on their way to plastic homes”, and demanded to know “whatever happened to the protest and the rage? Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn?”
Scott-Heron gave a damn and wrote and sang songs that showed this; songs about the dangers posed by nuclear power like We Almost Lost Detroit, which was written long before the partial nuclear meltdown in 1979 at Three Mile Island in the US and the disaster in 1986 at Chernobyl in Russia.
He sung, in Whitey on the Moon, about the waste of taxpayers’ money on space exploration while poor people went hungry on Earth, and in Work for Peace, about the unholy alliance between the military and monetary universes and how “the two get together whenever they think it is necessary and turn poor people into mercenaries and turn the planet into a cemetery.”
Though Scott-Heron lived in a parochial time and place, he was an internationalist who worshipped in a broad church and had catholic tastes. Impressed, Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 1976 called him “one of the most interesting new leaders of the black cause in America today”.
But Scott-Heron, who could be prickly and a contrarian, always denied he was a “black leader”, a “radical’, or a “militant.” He denied, too, that he was “the Godfather of Rap”, a music genre he felt was dangerously irresponsible.
He rejected, too, the title “the black Bob Dylan”, a moniker he blamed on “lazy” journalists, whom he described as “idiots under the pressure of editor-inspired deadlines”.
He resented being put into this or that category and recalled that he had once visited a record shop and found his recordings listed, bizarrely, under “miscellaneous”. “I hadn’t realised,” Scott-Heron said, “that ‘miscellaneous’ was what I was playing!”
He described himself as simply a singer of songs and as someone who recited poems. He described his music – which had elements of blues, reggae, salsa, and jazz – as “Bluesology”, as “Midnight Music” or as “Third World Music”.
Whatever Scott-Heron was, he was neither petty nor provincial. He sang about what was nearby, in America, and sang about what was far away, in Africa, in Asia and elsewhere.
He protested the US war in Vietnam, and the secret war the US was waging in Laos and called on right-thinking people to support liberation struggles everywhere.
“Shine down then sunshine on Zimbabwe, on El Salvador, on Namibia, on Poland and wherever a man would dare stand up for change”, Scott-Heron says in his love song for liberation, Morning Thoughts.
But all this talk of freedom did not make “Western money men”, “corporate monsters” and “economic manipulators” happy. “God damn it,” Scott-Heron said, mimicking a Money Man in his song B-Movie, “first one of them wants freedom and then the whole damn world wants freedom!”
Scott-Heron sang, too, about South Africa. His 1976 hit song Johannesburg, released a few months before the 16 June Soweto Uprising, woke Americans up to what was happening in South Africa and what people in the US could do to help defeat apartheid.
“Tell me brother, have you heard from Johannesburg?” Scott-Heron sang. “They tell me that our brothers over there are defyin’ the Man … Well, I hate it when the blood starts flowin’ but I’m glad to see resistance growin’.”
Scott-Heron’s song was used as a rallying cry on college campuses in the US by students demanding their universities divest, or stop doing business with American companies that did business with the apartheid regime. He spoke up for the people of South Africa again on his 1985 album Sun City, put together by a group of rock and rap artists, Artists United Against Apartheid. Scott-Heron helped write and perform on the song Let Me See Your ID, which called for an end to apartheid’s pass laws and compared South African racism to American racism.
Though he sang about a Third World Revolution, his chief subject was revolution in the US, the “seeds” of which, he said, had been planted in the slave ships that stole Africans away to America and sown on the plantations where they had slaved. Scott-Heron predicted these seeds would bloom, one day, in a full-scale revolution and black people would take to the streets of America “looking for a brighter day”.
In song after song, Scott-Heron did his best to spark this revolution. In Guerilla, he says, “I believe that brothers holding back too long and if you ain’t blind you’ll be digging its time we was coming on strong.”
In The Liberation Song (red, black and green), he sings, “I’m gonna keep on singing about the red, the black and green…and sooner than you think the whole world is going to know exactly what they mean…they stand for liberation.”
But Scott-Heron and his band members didn’t just sing about revolution. Some were actually revolutionaries. The band’s one-time saxophone player, Bilal Sunni Ali, was arrested in 1982 and charged by the FBI with being a dangerous revolutionary. The FBI claimed Sunni-Ali, who was a member of the Black Nationalist group, the Republic of New Afrika, which demanded the US government give black people five southern states as an independent homeland, had, along with others, robbed an armoured truck of $1.6m and killed two policemen. Sunni-Ali was, eventually, found innocent of all charges and freed.
There is little doubt the FBI, and CIA, viewed Scott-Heron, too, as a dangerous revolutionary determined to destroy the US and the American way of life, and business. And there is no doubt that speaking out as he did cost Scott-Heron.
When he first hit the scene in the early 1970s, The New York Times predicted he would be a “superstar of tomorrow”. This didn’t happen. Bob Dylan had managed to get rich and famous by shaming America in song, but Scott-Heron, “the black Bob Dylan”, didn’t have the same luck.
He had to make do, instead, with performing on college campuses and in tiny venues, and selling a few thousand records here and there. In the end, when his long-time record company could not successfully re-package him and re-make him into a 1980s hit-maker, with a political edge, it dropped him.
Scott-Heron felt under-appreciated and exploited. He took this rejection, and other disappointments in his life, hard. Soon began a drug-tinged downward spiral. It was a shock for Scott-Heron fans like me to discover that a man who had written so powerfully about the dangers of substance abuse, in The Bottle and in Angel Dust, had become addicted to crack cocaine.
Scott-Heron’s best-known song about drug addiction, Home is where the Hatred Is, written when he was a teenager, turned out to be an eerie foreshadowing of how he would end up. “A junkie walking through the twilight, I’m on my way home. I left three days ago but no one seems to know I’m gone,” an anguished Scott-Heron sang, taking us inside the life of the drug addict.
He knew a lot about the life. Between 2001 and 2007, Scott-Heron was arrested several times on drug possession charges. He spent several years in prison and was blocked, on one occasion, from entering the UK for a series of concerts when cocaine was found in his luggage.
“Home is where the hatred is. Home is filled with pain. It might not be such a bad idea if I never went home again.”
Home, and where exactly he belonged, was a troublesome subject for Scott-Heron. He was comfortable with the political but uncomfortable with the personal. He rarely acknowledged in song, or interview, the damage done to him by his parents’ divorce and the impact on him of being sent as a baby from his birthplace in Chicago in 1950 to be raised by his maternal grandmother, Lilly, in the segregated American South. In his poem, Coming from a Broken Home, he says his life “has been guided by women” and “because of them…I am a man…womenfolk raised me and I was full grown before I knew I came from a broken home.” He went on to say that “too many homes have a missing woman or man” and that “maybe there are homes that hurt.”
It is clear Scott-Heron hurt. His mother Bobbie had deposited him in Tennessee with his grandmother and gone off to pursue a career as a librarian by day and an amateur opera singer by night, and would later move to Puerto Rico in the Caribbean to study and teach.
She might never have returned to raise her only child again had his grandmother not died and left the boy, aged 12, with no one to care for him.
Scott-Heron was hurt, too, by the absence of his father, Gillie, who had been a star athlete as a boy in Jamaica. Newly divorced and with his son far away in Tennessee, Gillie Heron went off to Scotland in 1951 to become the first black person to play for Celtic in Glasgow.
Heron in fact played only five times for the Scottish club and returned home to the US a few years later, something of a failure. Embittered, he lived out his life working on a car assembly line in Detroit and did not bother to contact his son for 25 years.
The son wrote about meeting his father by accident in Detroit in 1975 while in the city to perform at a concert. “It was on a Sunday that I met my old man,” Scott-Heron sang in Hello Sunday, Hello Road. “I was 26 years old. No, but it was much too late to speculate. Say hello Sunday, say hello road.”
Predictably, the two had a strained relationship and in one of Scott-Heron’s final songs, when he was struggling with drug addiction, he confronted the father who had been absent much of his life.
“My life is one of movement,” Scott-Heron sang in The Other Side. “I’ve inherited trial and error directly from my old man” he admitted, pointing to his habit of running away from his responsibilities and the failed relationships that produced three children by three women. “My life’s been one of running away, just as fast as I can.”
Scott-Heron died, aged 62, on 27 May 2011 in a New York hospital, ravaged by years of drug abuse. “But I’ve been no more successful at getting away, than was my old man.”
(Gil Scott-Heron: A father and son story, by Leslie Goffe, is published by IMH Publishing, priced $19.95. ISBN 978-976-8202-89-5)