Last Friday, Gil Scott-Heron, renowned beat poet, revolutionary, and symbol of creative resistance, passed away at the age of 62. His death offers yet another opportunity to reflect on the life and beliefs that made him such a powerful voice of resistance in the media during the 1970s and 1980s, and even after his death.
Scott-Heron was born in Chicago, Illinois, to his mother, Bobbie Scott-Heron, and his Jamaican father, Gil Heron. The couple separated in 1951, when Gil was just 2, and Gil was sent to Jacksonville, Tennessee, to live with his maternal grandmother, Lillie Scott. When Lillie died ten years later, Gil moved back with his mother, in the Bronx, New York.
Originally, Gil went to DeWitt Clinton High School, until an impressed teacher showed a sample of Gil’s writing to the English department at Fieldston School, a private school in New York City. After reviewing his writing sample, the school granted him a full scholarship, fostering his own educative ambitions. When it came time for Scott-Heron to choose a college, he elected to attend Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, where one of his largest influences, Langston Hughes, had also attended.
More important than any of the accreditation’s he received or the awards he was a recipient of, Gil Scott-Heron revolutionized spoken word poetry, music, Black power, and what all of these subjects meant to mainstream America. Scott-Heron spoke frankly, sometimes with an almost militant diction about the state of Black America and the components that it consisted of.
His first recorded studio album, Small Talk at 125th And Lenox, paired somewhat simple rhythms with ingenious tone use, leaving his audience slightly stunned. In the first and title track, Scott-Heron seamlessly weaves what seems to be almost comical banter about those who populate the block and riveting one-liners about the actuality of the situation. His work is filled with witty cynicism that continues to enamor his listeners.
Gil Scott-Heron spoke openly and honestly about his own battle with drugs and the obvious devastation he witnessed in the ghettos he lived in. One of his most relevant pieces to his own drug use was Home Is Where The Hatred Is, which was recorded in 1971 on his Pieces of a Man album. The poem’s melancholy tone and lack of hope depicts a tremulous experience, only further exalted by Scott-Heron’s drug use.
Most notable, of all his musical albums and poetic compilations, was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. In what seemed an almost disgusted chiding at the laziness Scott-Heron saw all around him, the piece speaks sharply about revolution and resistance in an era flagrant with distractions by mainstream media, drugs, and countless other weapons of manipulation. The piece and its sentiments have been echoed for the past three decades, making it the most notorious track of his discography.
While many rappers and artists have called Scott-Heron the “Godfather of Rap”, it was a title he constantly rejected. Even though over 70 rap songs have sampled his work, and his early productions did feature some notable names in hip hop, Scott-Heron was and always will be a phenomenal spoken word poet. Whether he was balancing be-bop beats or spitting stern lyrics to his audience, he commanded the attention, caught the interest, and captivated the minds of all he was heard by. His militant approach and contemplative self-expression inspired creative revolution and methods of resistance amongst his peers, as well as a large following that was devoted to Scott-Heron’s ideologies and mannerisms. His words, thoughts, and lyrics became a mantra and manifesto, not simply to the Black community, but to all who face oppression.