Patricia Spears Jones on Gil Scott-Heron
Just like Shakespeare (sort of)
Gil Scott-Heron was an African–American poet, writer, composer and musician. His understood the use of rage; the power of satire and the need for embrace and love. He was not the father of hip hop or spoken word, but his ability to speak truth to power in his lyrics; to satirize the political elite and to portray the complexities of African American culture and liberation struggles has given all of us much to contemplate and those who are part of the hip hop generation a model to use. As Ron Carter, who played on "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," said: "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." The comparison to Shakespeare makes sense to me. “Your Daddy Loves You,” “Winter in America,” and “We Almost Lost Detroit” are songs about divorce; disillusionment with America society; and the possibility of nuclear disaster – what a range. And like other great writers, he found important collaborators who spurred his creativity, most notably Brian Jackson. Few American poets of the postwar years have successfully created poems, stories and songs on large political and social concepts, while simultaneously dealing with intimate issues of love, family, loss, and yes addiction.
And few have been as innovative. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” brought a new vocabulary to the talking blues, without cutesy nods to hippies or drug culture. Besides a critique of mass communication, it testifies to just where liberation struggles were and how willing and able many were to consider armed struggle to force greater change. The anti-war movement, the suppression of the Black Panthers, the rise of the police state (now enshrined by the Patriot Act) was in the song’s background, but my favorite Scott-Heron song remains “Watergate Blues,” which may be the best “report” on the Nixon years and on right-wing political power — that song got me through Bush the Younger years.
What amazes me is that Scott-Heron was able to reshape the talking blues into something contemporary and lasting using his “dynamic” voice. In an era of great Black American male singer/songwriters — Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Smoky Robinson, Bobby Womack — he brought a new sound, a city sound that rocked, folked, jazzed and salsaed to make us think and dance. I saw him perform on a glorious summer day in Central Park on the same bill as Miles Davis. It may have been 1974 or 1975, “The Bottle” was everywhere — blasting out of windows across New York City — the sound of a poor city doing its best to survive with whatever means benevolent and malign that it found. Only a revolutionary poet can make you think and dance. Rest in peace, Gil Scott-Heron. 62 years will have to be enough.
Patricia Spears Jones is the author of Painkiller, Femme du Monde and The Weather That Kills