Gil Scott-Heron, in the American traditions of horror and the blues
Two postings, combined into one, on Gil Scott-Heron, dead at age 62, a poet, prophet and spokesperson of the black urban American experience.
A merciless and unsentimental truth-teller when he emerged on the scene in the ’70s, by telling Afro-identified kids dancing to Motown and grooving on psychedelic rock that “the revolution will not be televised” Scott-Heron meant that the real revolution in Civil Rights and human conduct was not a show, that those who wanted to make it happen or enjoy its results had to liberate themselves from sitting on the couch zoning out, that there was dirty work ahead.
I heard him in 1970 at Colgate University on a bill with the Last Poets — one reason why the rise of poetry slams and rap didn’t seem like anything new to me when they came along a decade later. I didn’t listen to him much, but I heard and mostly respected what he had to say — and anyway, Scott-Heron’s message wasn’t aimed at me. I admire that he reached his target audience, without compromising his vision. Rather like Miles Davis in On The Corner, he predicated the blaxploitation film esthetic, hardcore funk of the later ’70s and ghetto lit (pace the great Chester Himes and lesser if more popular Iceberg Slim). He inspired rappers to look at the gangsterism and other real-life extremism around them, and to relate the unforgiving experiences of a still-with-us underclass to a critical, political point of view.
It’s surprising to read in his obituaries about Scott-Heron had a relatively privileged (but probably no less conflicted) personal background — but on second thought not so surprising, because only the well-read will think that words, whether poetry or prose, can change the world. Unfortunately his identification with tell-it-like-it-is analysis and gritty street life became so unrelenting he succumbed to its self-destructive escape routes, specifically the addictive crack pipe.
The problem is, you can’t always turn around, especially if you don’t want to, and drugs can make you not want to.Gil Scott Heron was a man who made an incontrovertible choice to cast a cold, clear eye on society, and for that he should be listened to, remembered. That he couldn’t see or wouldn’t do anything about his own self-imposed afflictions is rather tragic. The story of a grim realist who takes refuge personal failings rather than facing up to them seems like a subject Scott-Heron the poet, prophet and spokesperson would have grasped and railed on at first glance.
Rest in peace, man. Thanks for the life, the fearlessness you embodied, and finally your unique honesty. You gave us lots to contemplate, though we shudder at the thought.