SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 150 - July/August 2011

Let me die looking for freedom

GIL SCOTT-HERON who died in May has been dubbed the Godfather of Rap, although it was a term he did not like. But his influence over several decades of black music is clear.

Following his death, lengthy tributes were played by Gilles Peterson, Don Letts and Craig Charles, DJs whose own specialised radio shows encompass funk, soul and jazz, through reggae and punk, to hip-hop, dubstep, Latin music and beyond. There can be no greater acknowledgement of the debt music owes Gil Scott-Heron than this demonstration of his importance across differing musical spheres.

In a business awash with undeserved hyperbole, Scott-Heron did reach greatness. His poetry, lyrics and music inspired countless artists across decades. Never vacuous, often revolutionary.

Predictably, obituaries focused on the central irony of Scott-Heron’s later life: his descent into the drug abuse and alcoholism that he had spent the early years of his career warning against. It was a tragedy that one of the greatest artists of the modern era lost creative years through addiction and imprisonment. But there is a form of racism even in these obituaries. When a black artist dies, he is admonished for the drugs used. When a white rock musician dies, decades of alcohol and drug abuse are passed off almost as a badge of honour.

The early 1970s witnessed some groundbreaking protest music from black American soul artists. The Vietnam war, the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, Detroit’s 1967 riots and the general oppression black people experienced in the world’s foremost capitalist country inspired genuinely political songs from the likes of The Chi-Lites, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder. Marvin Gaye’s immortal What’s Going On (1971) became the beacon for an era.

Whereas such artists could justifiably claim to be speaking to the wider world on behalf of the black community, Gil Scott-Heron was speaking to the black community. His first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, live poetry to the accompaniment of percussion, featured probably his most famous piece, The Revolution will Not Be Televised. Far from just a tirade about the numbing effect of television as some critics thought, it was a ‘call to arms’:

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville

Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and

women will not care if Dick finally gets down with

Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people

will be in the street looking for a brighter day

The revolution will not be televised

Scott-Heron was demanding his fellow black Americans make things happen. He saw where this revolution was going to stem from, stating in an early interview: "Whatever hope I have comes from the young. They’re searching while the old folk are sitting on their ass. There’s no searching while you do that because I can always find my behind".

That first album also included pieces like Whitey On The Moon – "How come there ain’t no money here? Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon" – and Evolution, which namechecked Malcolm X of whom Scott-Heron said: "A vital influence on me as a songwriter was Malcolm X, because he was such a force in the lives of black people. And Huey Newton is another. I wrote Revolutionary Prayer with Huey in mind: "If I must die/Let me die looking for freedom/Instead of ways to keep from dying".

Linking up with flautist/keyboardist Brian Jackson, Scott-Heron released a series of albums that were at various times, jazz, funk and blues oriented but which later became major influences on the rap and hip-hop scenes. The title track of 1971’s Pieces Of A Man was a commentary on life under capitalism in the USA:

I saw my daddy greet the mailman

And I heard the mailman say

‘Now don’t you take this letter to heart now Jimmy

Cause they’ve laid off nine others today’

He didn’t know what he was saying

He could hardly understand

That he was only talking to

Pieces of a man

The album included Lady Day and John Coltrane, a sublime homage to his musical heritage:

Ever feel kinda down and out and don’t know just what to do?

Livin’ all of days in darkness, let the sun shine through

Ever felt that somehow, somewhere you lost your way?

And if you don’t get help you won’t make it through the day

You could call on Lady Day! You could call on John Coltrane!

They’ll wash your troubles, your troubles away

Free Will followed in 1972, featuring the heartbreaking Did You Hear What They Said?

Did you hear what they said,

They said, they shot him in his head,

A shot in the head to save his country,

Come on, come on, come on, come on

This can’t be real

Two years later came Winter In America, featuring The Bottle about alcohol abuse. Seeing men queueing up in front of a liquor store Scott-Heron "discovered one of them was an ex-physician, who’d been busted for abortions on young girls. There was an air traffic controller in the military - one day he sent two jets crashing into a mountain. He left work that day and never went back". Scott-Heron understood that such issues as alcoholism were a product of capitalist society and not solely an individual’s weakness. Later, Scott-Heron said of The Bottle’s success: "Pop music doesn’t necessarily have to be shit".

From South Africa to South Carolina was released in 1976. It spawned Johannesburg, registering solidarity with the fightback against apartheid: "Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’/but I’m glad to see resistance growin’." And: "They tell me that our brothers over there refuse to work in the mines/They may not get the news but they need to know we’re on their side".

Scott-Heron’s output was prodigious: 14 albums in twelve years to 1982. The penultimate, Reflections, included B-Movie, a rant against Ronald Reagan’s election as president and the USA of the early 1980s. Starting with the blunt, "Well, the first thing I want to say is... Mandate my ass!" on the 26% of the registered voters who voted for him, Scott-Heron likens the USA to a B-movie. "When America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan"; "The screenplay will be adapted from the book called Voodoo Economics by George ‘Papa Doc’ Bush"; "The ultimate realisation of the inmates taking over at the asylum".

The onset of his addictions virtually spelt the end of his recording career. One album followed in 1994 and the musical obituary of Gil Scott-Heron could almost have been written there and then. Then, in 2010, arrived I’m New Here with its pared-down sound and often just spoken words. Somewhat introspective lyrics replaced the more obviously political ones from his younger years, though some verses from The Vulture (also the title of the first of Scott-Heron’s two novels) on his first album reappear here.

Being brought up by his grandmother, a civil rights activist, is lovingly remembered in On Coming From A Broken Home, which opens and closes the album over a sample from Kanye West’s Flashing Lights. West’s own 2010 album closed with Who Will Survive in America, a sample from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox’s Comment #1.

Gil Scott-Heron’s untimely death will lead to renewed interest in his music, with record companies unashamedly cashing in. If you were too young to really appreciate him in his prime, or for some reason you just ‘missed’ him, I’d recommend you take this opportunity to revisit some of those albums from the early 1970s. The politics won’t disappoint and when you just want to listen to something because it is beautiful, put on I Think I’ll Call It Morning from Pieces Of A Man.

Dave Gorton

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