Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron

One of my favorite musicians, Gil Scott-Heron, has died. Scott-Heron and his band performed on the seventh episode of Saturday Night Live (the one with Richard Pryor), and their music so moved me that I ran out the next day and bought their album, “From South Africa to South Carolina,” the first LP I ever owned.

A student of African master drummer Babatunde Olatunji and of the Harlem Renaissance, Scott-Heron brought traditional African rhythms and instruments of a new contemporary style of soulful, folksy jazz, infused with both African and American history in a way that politically pulled no punches.

He took a bold stand against nuclear power with his hit, “Shut ‘Um Down.” He performed at numerous political rallies and benefits, and incorporated “spoken word” into his work, earning him the name of “Godfather of Rap.”

He  served as an inspiration to a generation of Afrocentric “guerilla poets.” Scott-Heron contributed significantly to the Artists Against Apartheid’s Sun City project, a collaborative recording of American and international musicians, including Bruce Springstein, Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt and Bono, whose goal was to raise awareness about apartheid in South Africa. Ronald Reagan was president at the time, and along with Israel, the U.S. was the last influential country to maintain a policy of tacit support for the apartheid regime.

Just this year, Scott-Heron cancelled a booking in Tel Aviv after Palestinian rights activists appealed to him, comparing Israel’s policies to those of South Africa’s apartheid regime.

At a time when the organic musical genre of “rap” was being heavily co-opted by commercial interests that emphasized violence and sexism, the genre’s “godfather” responded musically with a piece called “Message to the Messengers,” which offered brotherly, or perhaps fatherly, advice to contemporary rappers to focus on real issues relevant to the welfare of their communities and to treat women with respect and as equals.

Tupac Shakur soon after had an epiphany and followed Scott-Heron’s advice, releasing the single “I Ain’t Mad at Cha.” That was also the year that two major gangs, Crips and Bloods, signed an historic truce in Los Angeles. When I interviewed one of the Bloods’ leaders who signed that truce, he shared with me that Scott-Heron was, indeed, one of his influences.

Scott-Heron also championed the cause of undocumented immigrants with his often excerpted ballad “Alien (hold on to your dream).”

However, Scott-Heron may be best known for his poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,”  a scathing indictment of capitalism, racial and economic inequality, and media censorship. The title of the poem has been expropriated for any number of political and commercial applications, most of which bear little resemblance to the poem’s original point, which was summed up by the line; “… andwomen 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.”

Many artists have covered or quoted Scott-Heron’s compositions over the years, but the raw, heartfelt energy of his original performances, especially with long-time collaborator Brian Jackson and the rest of the Midnight Band, set a standard in political jazz, and bridged cultural and generational divides in a way that few American artists have accomplished.

I had been a fan of Scott-Heron’s for more than two decades before I learned from Professor Cornel West, that he was also an author. His two novels, “The Vulture and The Nigger Factory,” (released most recently as a single volume) described life in the ghetto with stark honesty, and yet showed a glimmer of genius that brought to mind the works of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. His writing approached greatness, and that was from the earliest days of his artistic development.

But Scott-Heron struggled with an assortment of vices, which inhibited his creativity and significantly narrowed his opportunities to perform or publish. He attempted a few comebacks in the first years of the new millenium, but reviewers described his speech and singing as muffled and incoherent.

I interviewed the Midnight Band’s former saxophonist Bilal Sunni Ali, who had settled in Atlanta, and had a weekly jazz show on community radio station WFRG. He said Scott-Heron had developed a neurological disorder which affected his speech.

Nevertheless, he said, there were plans for some kind of possible reunion. Sadly, Sunni Ali, himself, suffered a medical challenge that halted his own musical career shortly thereafter.

Scott-Heron wound up doing a bit of time in prison on a drug possession charge, reportedly after having failed to comply with the terms of a very lenient parole sentence handed down by a judge, who was apparently a fan. Not long after his release, however Scott-Heron’s efforts at self-resurrection finally began to pay off and late in 2010 he released his final album, “I’m New Here,” a selection from which debuted on the airwaves in Columbus, Ohio, via my own weekly music program on WCRS communty radio.

I had hoped that someday Gil would actually return to Columbus and visit the station in person. Some years before WCRS hit the airwaves, I convinced local jazz DJ Wayne Self at the NPR affiliate, WCBE, to do a Gil Scott-Heron retrospective, for which I provided some of the material. I’m sure Wayne would agree that this monumental artist has yet to be adequately recognized on the local airwaves. There will be tributes, relegated primarily to community radio stations like WCRS, where Gil’s music and the causes he was passionate about will always have a home.

Evan Davis reports for Free Speech Radio News on Pacifica Radio, and hosts a weekly music program on community radio station WCRS in Columbus, Ohio, a station he helped launch in 2007.

Photo: Gil Scott-Heron plays at WOMAD 2010, World of Music Arts and Dance festival, in the United Kingdom. He was the final act on the main stage. (Stuart Madeley/CC)