Gil Scott-Heron, Godfather of Hip-Hop, Would Have Been 66
A version of this article ran on phillymag.com in March 2012.
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 black, white and brown progressives and revolutionaries. And he didn’t stop until 40 years later. Gil was the “musical grandson” of insurrectionist Nat Turner and liberator Harriet Tubman, and the “poetic son” of fiery author David Walker and anti-lynching editor Ida B. Wells.
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 had decided to move to Scotland. The two didn’t speak to each other again until he was 26. Immediately following the separation, Gil’s mother moved to Puerto Rico to teach English. Before going, she sent him to Tennessee to live with her mother, a serious and religious southern woman. His grandmother was pivotal in laying the foundation for him to become the man he became. Lillie, as she was called, loved gospel music. She made arrangements for Gil to entertain her Thursday night sewing circle by playing gospel on a broken-down piano that she bought for him for about eight dollars from the funeral parlor next door. And she hired a neighbor at the rate of 10 cents per lesson to teach him to play. He learned, mostly by ear and, as he later put it, competently not excellently. By the time he was eight, he found himself attracted to what he was hearing on WDIA, a local blues-oriented radio station in Memphis. Although he couldn’t really appreciate what he heard, he definitely 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 southern racism meant for black adults and for black children, too. She became his rock, his inspiration, and his motivation, and he loved her dearly for it. One day in 1962 when he was 12, he noticed that she had not come downstairs for breakfast, so he went up to wake her. She had died in her sleep. He was devastated. She was, as he told NME in 1986, “an issues woman, looking at things in terms of what’s fair and not fair. It’s a question of looking in your heart for the truth and not seeing whether your favorite politician goes for a particular issue. On a right or wrong type of basis, this is how my grandmother raised me, to not sit around and wait for people to guess what’s on my mind. I was gonna have to say it.”
His mother returned to New York to move them into a Bronx apartment that she would share with her brother. When Gil’s uncle left in 1965, his mom could no longer afford the rent because her job at the city housing authority didn’t pay enough. So the two moved 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 academically, primarily in writing courses. In fact, 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 a full academic scholarship but was disappointed to discover that he would be just one of five African-American students in a class of 100.
He later enrolled at Lincoln University in Chester County, 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 (or even tried to join) 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 began to record with small labels, and his career expanded in 1975 when he was signed to Clive Davis’s Arista Records, making him the first artist ever on that mega-label. It was then that his Midnight Band debuted. Gil’s First Minute of a New Day album reached Billboard’s Top-10 Soul Album chart. He headlined as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live — at the insistence of Richard Pryor. He replaced the terminally ill Bob Marley on a tour with Stevie Wonder in the early 1980s. 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 wanted to be and did become a “bluesologist,” meaning, in his words, “a scientist who is concerned with the origin of the blues.” He listed his influences as Langston Hughes, 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 that 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 — meaning just the bastardized and Frankenstein-created version that pollutes cable TV and FM radio and that falsely claims to be hip-hop when the vast majority of what is aired is really nothing more than modern-day minstrelsy performed by no-talent poseurs. That’s why he had absolutely no problem with unadulterated hip-hop, which included performing with Common and Talib Kweli, being sampled by Mos Def, Tribe Called Quest, and (the sometimes genius and sometimes asshole) Kanye West, having his songs remade by The Roots and Queen Latifah, and recording with Blackalicious. Chuck D of Public Enemy said Gil is one of “the roots of rap, taking a word and juxtaposing it into some sort of music.” He added “… we do what we do and how we do because of you.” Eminem stated “He influenced all of hip-hop.” And Lupe Fiasco dedicated the poem “The Television Will Not Be Revolutionized” to him.
Gil’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” first recorded in 1970, was listed in the New Statesman in 2010 as one of the “Top 20 Political Songs of All Time.” The Guardian’s Jude Rogers wrote that Gil’s 2010 I’m New Here CD was one of the “decade’s best records.” Gil posthumously received the Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
The drug and jail problems of Gil’s private life got more media attention than they deserved; drugs and jail didn’t define him. They weren’t who he was permanently, only what he did temporarily. What he was and what he is is an activist musician/musical activist who, in a span of four decades, enlightened, activated, and, yes, entertained us with 15 studio albums, 11 compilation albums, nine live albums, and one collaboration album (recordings from 1970’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox to 2010’s I’m New Here and 2011’s We’re New Here).
Gil was also a family man, with two half-brothers, Denis Heron and Kenny Heron, and a half-sister, Gayle Heron. His four children are Rumal Rackley, Gia Scott-Heron, Raquiyah Kelly Heron, and Chegianna Newton. He was a son, a grandson, a brother and a father. But to the public in general and me in particular, he was the musically and poetically mellifluous voice of progressivism and revolution. And not just in name, but in word, in deed, and in life — at least until he became an ancestor on May 27, 2011. Without compromise, he relentlessly performed the revolutionary music and spread the revolutionary message.
And we all can celebrate that music and that message in honor of his 66th birthday at a video music screening tribute on April 1st at 6:30 p.m. at Temple University’s Anderson Hall (room 14). Admission is free. For more info, call 215-552-8751 or send an email to [email protected]. Spread the word: On April 1st, Gil’s revolution will be televised — well, maybe not televised, but certainly screened.