Saturday, May 28, 2011

R.I.P. Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011): Poet Passes at Age 62

You know that the spoken word poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" by Gil Scott-Heron left its mark on America because the title's become a commonplace. For instance, I heard a television reporter making reference to the poem during the so-called "Arab Spring" protests of this year as a point of commentary. He said, "Apparently the revolution will be televised."

The title of Gil Scott-Heron's poem has become a cultural reference point. It's a saying with which people are familiar, but many young people don't know when they hear it that it is an allusion to a poem. So, I wanted to honor his memory today with that point of recognition because yesterday I heard that he died.

Poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron has passed on at age 62. His death, according to the New York Times, was announced on Twitter and later confirmed by his publisher. His work was a part of my coming of age in the 70s, but the last time I mentioned him on this blog was after President Barack Obama's inauguration. At that time poet E. Ethelbert Miller was wondering why no one was comparing Elizabeth Alexander's poem "Praise Song for the Day," written for Obama's inauguration, to GSH's "Winter in America." Miller's observation was rather astute.

The NYT piece, which calls GSH "the voice of Black culture," also says:
Mr. Scott-Heron often bristled at the suggestion that his work had prefigured rap. (“I don’t know if I can take the blame for it,” he said in an interview last year with the music Web site The Daily Swarm.) He preferred to call himself a “bluesologist,” drawing on the traditions of blues, jazz and Harlem Renaissance poetics.
I never associated him directly with HipHop. I see how he could be associated with early protest rap music, but his work never popped into my head when I heard the party-like-a-fool, "on-and-on-til-the-break-of-dawn" rap that blasted across college campuses in the late 70s and early 80s. And definitely--I definitely did not associate his work with misogyny or anything that glorified a black man killing a black man, commercialized gangsta rap imagery. Maybe I thought of GSH when I heard Taalam Acey or other spoken word artists or perhaps I hear the echo of his spirit concerned for his people in Raheem DeVaugh's "Bulletproof" featuring Ludacris, but not when I hear Nelly's "Shake Ya' Tail Feather." I've never made an aesthetic connection between Gil Scott-Heron and the sexual simplicity of "shorty dropping it like it's hot."

Apparently the poet did not see a connection either. He felt rap was directed at youngsters not grown folks. The NYT's obituary says he preferred jazz.

I think I became aware of Gil Scott-Heron in the 70s because my older cousins from California would come to New Orleans for the summer and one of them was into the poet's work. I think my cousin Ricky must have played "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," which I've embedded in this post.

Somehow I was exposed to The Last Poets, too, of which GSH was a contemporary but not a member. It had to have been one of my cousins who introduced me to radical protest poetry because my mother, who exposed me to a lot of poetry, was more the Langston Hughes/James Weldon Johnson/Gwendolyn Brooks type. But maybe she was aware of of GSH also because he admired Langston Hughes as well. All I know is that when I was 13 in 1973 I was at a predominantly white boarding school, sensitive to racism, and trying to imitate protest poetry. So, his work and that of other black protest poets must have made an impression on me.

And some of GSH's work was also played on black local radio stations later. I remember hearing "The Bottle" a lot. I can't pinpoint exactly when and how I became aware of his work, but I know I was aware of it and even recall seeing him on Soul Train. His image and words stuck in my head. He said something worth saying.


le0pard13 said...

Wonderful tribute to an extraordinary individual and poet, Nordette. May he rest in peace.

Lovebabz said...

It is amazing how someone or something can take root into our very being. I too remember hearing GSH clearly. My uncle Lonnie turned me onto him around 74-75 I too was about 14 or so. I remember listening to him and Nikki Giovanni and the Last Poets. I thought they were so radical and COOL.

His passing makes me look at where we are musically and in words. It is dismal with few bright spots. Or maybe that's my generational sh*t talking. I do know that we are nowhere where we were going and that we lost something divine.

Oh if he had more time. But maybe the more time is in his passing and we get to immerse ourselves in his songs and remember and feel compelled to share it with young folks who may not or would not hear him.

I remain hopeful. His music was inspiring and that doesn't change.

mf said...


Gena said...

There are good poets who are striving to be heard above the racket. Can't get air time to save their lives on contemporary pseudo-hip hop radio stations.

Can't even get the youngsters to listen to jazz, blues or any form of traditional music.

There is no one that was able to connect us like this man.

Nothing is really lost, we still have his work.

Yet I was hoping that he'd have time to be the elder poet/musician that spoke to our spirits once again in this time.


Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

Thank you all for adding your voices.

msladydeborah said...

I am heartbroken over GSHs passing. This brother has been my go to man for decades. I had hoped that after returning to the studio that he would be able to produce more work.

One thing that has not been mentioned about GSH is his published works. He was also a novelist and his books received good reviews.

He also knew how to express our love for each other. His softer side is seldom exposed. His ability was diverse and his voice spoke of global pain and sufferring.

While the folks who write about music try to make him the Godfather or rap, he is in a class by himself, and there are people who will realize one day how outstanding he really was/is.

Diann Blakely said...

Thank YOU! I'm going to see if I can send you GSH's cover of "Me and the Devil." It's something to be heard, and unsettling when you consider his life--he and the devil of addiction were on intimate terms.

And I agree absolutely that his roots were more in blues and jazz. He would never have given his blessing to the gangsta/ho/bitch school of rap. Not Mr. Heron, bless his good soul. Would he have lived to have revolutionized THAT particular blight on our culture, for I've never heard anything by him that resonates with misoygyny. Even in "Me and the Devil," in which Robert Johnson declares "I'm goin' to beat my woman / Till I get satisfied," what you hear is the sin, the sin, the sin of such thoughts, just as you hear the same tone in the original Johnson song.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

Yes, Deborah. I almost mentioned the novels, with which I am only vaguely familiar. They are mentioned in the NYT obituary. He was gifted in multiple genres.

Thanks, Diann.