Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Remembering Gil Scott-Heron

In another piece of sad news, Gil Scott-Heron passed away at age 62, over the weekend. At the tail end of the 60's and throughout the 70's, Scott-Heron, along with kindred spirits the Last Poets, began recording spoken word and poetry that expressed the rage felt by disaffected urban black youth across the country. The missing link between the Black Panthers and Public Enemy, Scott-Heron's polyrhythmic rhymes were sometimes delivered over raw drumming, basically creating rap music a decade before rap music was first invented.

Gil Scott-Heron (image from Wikimedia)
Gil Scott-Heron

Perhaps best known to the general public as the artist behind "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," Scott-Heron's poetry was militant, a call to arms for black Americans and an unsettling warning to white folks, who still benefited from a deeply racist power structure, years after Dr. King and desegregation. Of course, his wrath did not end there; his rhymes attacked black hypocrisy, economic injustice, willful ignorance and rampant consumerism among many other subjects. As his recordings progressed, they grew more traditionally musical, but his words remained potent. Keeping a healthy perspective on his own work, Scott-Heron also infused his verses with a biting humor that prevented things from getting unbearably heavy.

Although he never quite became a household name, there is not a rapper or new R&B/soul artist who is not indebted to Scott-Heron. In the end, he succumbed to the very injustices he decried, struggling with drug addiction and HIV for many years. Despite this, he continued to perform, record and inspire until the end of his life.

A list of artists directly inspired by Scott-Heron would be too long to list, but would include artists like Public Enemy, Eminem, Mos Def, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Common, to name just a few. Scott-Heron changed the course not only of popular music but of political discourse in America, setting a model of self-expression for generations of disenfranchised men and women.

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