The Ancestors Welcome Poet-Singer-Musician Gil Scott-Heron, Known For “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”; Father of the Spoken Word Movement and a Progenitor of Hip Hop
I woke up to this. I wasn’t surprised, just sad. He had been in failing health from years of drug addiction and had been in and out of jail for possession and all sorts of related charges. As far as I am concerned, the brother died too young, but still saying something, with a whole new audience willing to pay homage to him and to his work.
He may have been famous for “The Revolution…” but this is one of my favorites, “Winter in Amerca.” It has a lot of resonance today.
Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949. He spent his early years in Jackson, Tenn., attended high school in The Bronx, and spent time at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University before settling in Manhattan. His recording career began in 1970 with the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, which featured the first version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The track has since been referenced and parodied extensively in pop culture.
Scott-Heron continued to record through the 1970s and early ’80s, before taking a lengthy hiatus. He briefly returned to the studio for 1994’s Spirits. That album featured the track “Message to the Messengers,” in which Scott-Heron cautions the hip-hop generation that arose in his absence to use its newfound power responsibly. He has been cited as a key influence by many in the hip-hop community — such as rapper-producer Kanye West, who closed his platinum-selling 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with a track built around a sample of Scott-Heron’s voice.
Scott-Heron struggled publicly with substance abuse in the 2000s, and spent the early part of the decade in and out of jail on drug possession charges. He began performing again after his release in 2007, and in 2010 released a new album, I’m New Here, to widespread critical acclaim.
Details about his death are sketchy. He was said to have become ill after a tour in Europe and expired at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York late yesterday. Gil Scott-Heron was 62.
It is unknown at this writing whether he has any surviving children or family. The Telegraph (UK) says that he was briefly married to the actress Brenda Sykes by whom he had a daughter, the poet Gia Scott-Heron. Gia Scott-Heron’s website is here. His drug addiction, however, may have precluded him any longer lasting relationships. His father, however, was a Jamaican footballer who was the first black man to play for Glasgow, Scotland‘s Celtic Football Club. His collaborator, Brian Jackson, the flautist and pianist, is yet alive and doing well, but they parted ways in 1980. His website is here.
More from the L.A. Times:
Last year the New Yorker published a reverent but heartbreaking profile of Scott-Heron by Alec Wilkinson. Written after Scott-Heron had recorded “I’m New Here” but after he had relapsed and was smoking crack openly in front of the reporter, the story traced his rise, his fall and his influence.
In an interview for the feature, bassist Ron Carter, who played on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” described Scott-Heron’s allure: “He wasn’t a great singer, but with that voice, if he had whispered it would have been dynamic. It was a voice like you would have for Shakespeare.”
In the same story, […], rapper Chuck D. discusses the role Scott-Heron played in the birth of rap: “You can go into the beat poets and [Allen] Ginsberg and [Bob] Dylan, but Gil Scott-Heron is the manifestation of the modern world. He and the Last Poets set the stage for everyone else. In what way necessary? Well, if you try and make pancakes and you ain’t got the water, the milk or the eggs, you’re trying to do something you can’t. In combining music with the word, from the voice on down, you follow the template he laid out. His rapping is rhythmic. Some of it’s songs. It’s punchy, and all those qualities are still used today.”
Truly. Scott-Heron’s greatest hits (from the BBC) were:
- The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, 1970 – critique of race in the mass media age
- Johannesburg, 1975 – in support of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa
- Home Is Where the Hatred Is, 1971 – drug addiction and poverty in the US
- We Almost Lost Detroit, 1977 – concerns over the use of nuclear power
- Message to the Messengers, 1993 – calling on rappers and musicians to use art for positive social change
While he was known primarily for his political songs, Scott-Heron also wrote poetry, novels, and he had a memoir in the works. Not all of his songs in the 20 albums he produced were political ones. He said in The New Yorker article that he realized if he focused strictly on politics, eventually there would be no enjoyment in life. “[…]If you aren’t having no fun, die, because you’re running a worthless program, far as I’m concerned.”
I hope you are having fun, Gil, wherever you are. Rest, and come back to us again.