OSCAR WILLIAMS-GRUT pays tribute to softly-spoken creative genius Gil Scott-Heron in the wake of his death last week, and laments the departure of a man who dissociated himself from the lazy, apolitical rap genre, and leaves it in much the same state today.
Last Friday, the world lost a great man.
Gil Scott-Heron, often called the “godfather of rap”, died in St Luke’s Hospital, New York, aged 62.
A lot of people might only be familiar with Gil Scott-Heron from his 2010 comeback album I’m New Here, or Jamie XX’s stellar remix of it, We’re New Here. Some might not even be familiar with that. Scott-Heron was a softly spoken creative genius who made a name for himself in 1970s America with his piercingly political spoken word pieces that were at once a throwback to the beat generation and something altogether new.
Scott-Heron probably deserves the title ‘genius’. Aside from music, he was a writer, and by the age of 23 as well as recording three albums he had published two novels and written a book of poetry. Between 1970 and 1982 he also managed to record 13 albums, and he wrote his most famous work, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, when he was just 19. That’s pretty damn prolific.
But he wasn’t just prolific, his work was important. His songs and poems chronicled the reality of life for black Americans in the ’70s and ’80s. Songs such as Home Is Where The Hatred Is and The Bottle dealt with alcoholism and drug addiction, problems Scott-Heron struggled with in his own life, while tracks like Whitey on the Moon took an unflinching and angry look at poverty, pointing the finger of blame squarely at ‘whitey’.
What made his output so special, whether written or recorded, was that it spoke to people. He didn’t romanticise the ghetto, he showed just how shitty and depressing it really was. In doing so, he bought black issues and black culture into the mainstream. I’ve seen his book The Nigger Factory for sale in HMV for godssake.
Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t afraid to say what he thought about issues that really mattered, and he didn’t give a damn what people thought. And above all he was angry; angry about political injustice, racial inequality and America’s dysfunctional society.
Which makes it all the sadder that he’s gone. He may have been called the “godfather of rap” but it’s not a title he enjoyed. Scott-Heron said he didn’t want to be associated with rap because it was “aimed at kids.” Artists like Public Enemy and N.W.A, both of whom were inspired by Scott-Heron, carried the political torch he lit, but these days rap has lost its overt political edge. Politics is an after thought. You can see why Scott-Heron is disappointed to be associated with it.
Kanye West sampled Scott-Heron last year on the track Who Will Survive In America, an overtly political song; I’m not saying politics is dead in rap, but most of the time you’re more likely to hear rappers talking about hustling, or owning expensive cars. And even when rappers do claim to trumpet equality and social justice, they undermine the message by doing outlandish things like getting diamond and gold teeth or starting their own luxury fashion label. Ego has taken replaced caring about the community.
Scott-Heron didn’t give a shit about fancy cars and getting paid. What he cared about was the average joe and the problems he faced. In and out of prison and struggling with crack addiction for much of his life, Scott-Heron lived a depressingly relatable life for many Americans. He fought the daily battles that most of us have to fight, and on Friday he finally lost.
So raise a glass to Gil Scott-Heron, the black Bob Dylan, and remember him not as the “godfather of rap” but as someone who had something important to say, and wasn’t afraid to say it.
On the track Running from his final album he said in his characteristic worn out drawl: “running makes me look like everyone else, though I hope there will never be cause for that.”
He needn’t have worried, he was, unfortunately for us, one of a kind.