Last Friday, a great American poet and musician died. Gil Scott Heron was a significant mouthpiece for the black community in the United States, exposing black and white audiences alike to the social and political issues happening with urban black people in the 1960s and 1970s. Part of a great tradition of blues musicians, Scott Heron blended their ability to evoke the pain and suffering of the working-class and poor black man and woman with the emerging scene of spoken-word poetry to pioneer a contemporary method of articulating the struggles of his own community.
Scott Heron’s musical style laid the foundation for the next generation of musicians and artists to perform the same function – funk and soul in the 1970s, followed by hip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s. While he is often credited with the appellation, Scott Heron eschewed being thought of as the forefather of hip-hop music:
Shame on every writer who reported Gil Scott-Heron’s death with the blurb, “Godfather of Rap,” writers who have—per Angela Davis’ observations—totally missed the point of the man’s career. It was a term that Gil Scott-Heron was not ambivalent about: “There seems to be a need within our community to have what the griot provided supplied in terms of chronology; a way to identify and classify events in black culture that were both historically influential and still relevant (Now and Then: The Poems of Gil Scott Hereon, xiv).
This is less Scott-Heron distancing himself from Hip-hop (though he would do so from time to time), but more a recognition that what he did, sat at the feet of traditions that came before him. He writes, “there were poets before me who had great influence on the language and the way it was performed and recorded: Oscar Brown, Jr., Melvin Van Peebles, and Amiri Baraka were all published and well respected for their poetry, plays, songs and range of other artistic achievements when the only thing I was taping were my ankles before basketball practice.” (xiv)
Scott was perhaps best known for his immortal work The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
But I think my favourite work of his is a poem called simply Brother:
We deal in too many externals, brother
Always afros, handshakes and dashikis
Never can a man build a working structure for black capitalism
Always does the man read Mao or Fanon
I think I know you would-be black revolutionaries too well
Standing on a box on the corner,
Talking about blowing the white man away
That’s now where it’s at yet, brother
Calling this man an Uncle Tom and telling this woman to get an afro
But you won’t speak to her if she looks like hell, now will you brother
Some of us been checking your act out kinda close
And by now its looking kinda shaky the way you been rushin’ people with your super black bag
Jumping down on some black men with both feet cause they’re after their BA
But you’re never around when your BA is in danger…I mean your black ass
I think it was a little too easy for you to forget that you were a negro before Malcolm
You drove your white girl through the village every Friday night while the grassroots stared in envy and drank wine,
Do you remember?
You need to get your memory banks organized brother.
Show that man you call an Uncle Tom just where he’s wrong
Show that woman that you’re a sincere black man
All we need to do is see you shut up and be black
Help that woman
Help that man
That’s what brothers are for, brother
As a musician, I recognize the importance of history. We all build our lives on the shoulders of those that have come before us, and we hope to add a little piece to their legacy. If we can’t do that, we can at least try and bring the work of those others to a new audience. What we cannot do, what we must not do, is pass off the works of others as original material, and divorce it from its origins. To sever that link to history is to lose all meaning, all context, all life from art, rendering it meaningless.
We’re used to having white people try to rob us
Ain’t no new thing, we have dug his game
Charlie Parker will live on
John Coltrane will live on
Eric Dolphy will live on
Billie Holiday will live on
Jimi Hendrix and Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan will live on
And on in the sunshine of their accomplishments
The glory of the dimensions that they added to our lives [emphasis mine]
Gil Scott Heron is dead. A tireless voice for the American black community has fallen silent, but has left a long legacy that lives on in those that carry that voice forward to a new generation.
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Rap has to go back a LONG way. The character “Crazy Guggenheim” on the old Jackie Gleason Show (late 50’s, early 60’s) would occasionally drop into a rap or hip-hop cadence. And I’m pretty certain Frank Fontaine (who played C. G.) must have gotten the idea from somewhere, implying an even earlier genesis.
I hadn’t ever heard of that character, so I looked up a Youtube clip. Rap music came out of funk and blues, which are two musical traditions that are completely outside the purview of Jackie Gleason. If we’re going to be strict about it, rap music’s underpinnings are in tribal music from Africa, which would make it VERY old.
Interestingly, if you look at heroic recitation (bards) from England (and before that, Rome and Greece), it shares a lot of the thematic characteristics of rap music, without the drum underpinning. It’s important, however, not to get overly theoretical about the origins of this type of expression – it started in one place with one specific purpose, and the pioneers are (mostly) still alive.
Thanks for de-lurking! 😛