When he first told America in 1970 that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” after writing it in 1968 at age 19, Gil Scott-Heron set the stage for what would become part of the musical and poetic soundtrack for revolutionaries worldwide. And he didn’t stop until 40 years later.
Gilbert “Gil” Scott-Heron was born April 1, 1949 in Chicago to Jamaican soccer star Giles “The Black Arrow” Heron and opera singer/teacher Robert (yes, “Robert,” as named by her father Robert), better known as Bobbie, Scott-Heron. When he was two, his parents separated after his father moved to Scotland. Immediately following the separation, Gil’s mother moved to Puerto Rico to teach. Before going, she sent him to Tennessee to live with her mother, a dignified and religious woman, who was pivotal in creating the man we know of today. Lillie, as she was called, loved gospel music. She made arrangements for him to entertain her friends by playing gospel on a broken-down piano she bought for him. And she hired a neighbor to teach him to play. By the time he was eight, he found himself attracted to what he was hearing on a local blues-oriented radio station in Memphis. Although he couldn’t really appreciate what he heard, he liked it. Accordingly, he began to mimic it on his piano- but only when grandma wasn’t around, because she was no fan of the blues.
It wasn’t just music that Lillie brought into his life. It was also Black consciousness. She introduced him to the literary artistry and social activism of Langston Hughes, whose work would become a motivating force in Gil’s life. She explained to him what racism means. She became his rock and inspiration. And he loved her dearly for that. One day in 1962 when he was 12, he noticed she had not come downstairs for breakfast, so he went up to wake her. She had died in her sleep.
His mother returned to New York and moved them into a Bronx apartment. But when she no longer could afford the rent there, she had to relocate them to a public housing project in the run-down Chelsea section of Manhattan.
As a sophomore at the neighborhood DeWitt Clinton High School, Gil excelled, primarily in writing courses. And one of the English teachers was so impressed that she got an interview for him at the elite Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, a prosperous section of the Bronx. He was accepted on an academic scholarship but was disappointed to discover he was just one of five African-Americans in a class of 100.
He later enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He chose that school because it was where his hero Langston Hughes had attended. In fact, he actually met Langston Hughes there once. And it was at Lincoln in 1969 where he met the Last Poets and told member Abiodun Oyewole that he was so moved by their rhythmic revolutionary poetry that he “wanted to do that” in life. Although he never joined this historic spoken word and percussion group, he did begin to blossom as a musician and activist, especially when he hooked up with follow student Brian Jackson and formed the Black and Blues band. He remained at Lincoln for two years and then went on a sort of sabbatical to write two powerful and still relevant novels, The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, the former published in 1970 and the latter in 1971. In addition, he wrote a volume of poetry. And he earned a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University in 1972.
Music became his life when he started recording with small labels, and things expanded in 1975 when he was signed to Arista Records, making him the first artist ever on that mega-label. It was then that his Midnight Band debuted. The band’s “First Minute of a New Day” album reached Billboard’s “Top Ten Soul Album” chart. And he headlined as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live- and that was at the insistence of Richard Pryor. He toured in the early 1980s with Stevie Wonder after replacing the terminally ill Bob Marley. He also performed with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Miles Davis.
Gil had become exactly what he always wanted to be: a jazzman, a soul-man, a poet, a composer, an author, and a bluesman. He also became a “bluesologist,” meaning, in his words, “a scientist who is concerned with the origin of the blues.” He listed his influences as John Coltrane, Otis Reading, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Richie Havens, Huey Newton, and Malcolm X.
Although many of us Hip Hop aficionados like to say Gil is the “Godfather of Hip Hop,” the man himself half-seriously and half-jokingly once said in 2010, “I don’t know if I can take the blame for that.” But he was referring only to the heartless materialism, the gratuitous violence, and the cartoonish posturing of commercialized Hip Hop. That’s why he had no problem with unadulterated and conscious Hip Hop, which is the reason he performed with Common and Talib Kweli, permitted sampling by Mos Def, Tribe Called Quest, and Kanye West, allowed his songs to be remade by The Roots and Queen Latifah, and recorded with Blackalicious. Chuck D of Public Enemy said “… we do what we do and how we do because of… (Gil).”
The drug and jail problems of Gil’s private life got more media attention than they deserved. But drugs and jail didn’t define him. They weren’t who he was permanently, only what he did temporarily. Who he was permanently was a powerful musical activist who, in a span of four decades, enlightened, activated, and entertained us with 15 studio albums, eleven compilation albums, nine live albums, and one collaboration album.
Gil became an ancestor on May 27, 2011. But he remains alive as long as his music and his message remain alive. Help keep that music and that message alive by attending a birthday celebration/presentation for Gil Scott-Heron on April 1, which is his 67th birthday. Join us on that date at 6:30 p.m. at Temple University in room 105 of Tuttleman Learning Center at 1801 North Broad St. Free admission and open to the public!
The words from David Walker’s Appeal, written in 1829, and the words of Christopher James Perry Sr., founder of the Philadelphia Tribune in 1884, are the inspiration for my “Freedom’s Journal” columns. In order to honor that pivotal nationalist abolitionist and that pioneering newspaper giant, as well as to inspire today’s Tribune readers, each column ends with Walker and Perry’s combined quote- along with my inserted voice- as follows: I ask all Blacks “to procure a copy of this… (weekly column) for it is designed… particularly for them” so they can “make progress… against (racist) injustice.”