Gil Scott-Heron died yesterday (May 27th, 2011) at age 62. Best known for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised“, and “Home Is Where The Hatred Is“, Scott-Heron has often been considered a sort of godfather of rap and hip-hop. His spoken-word performances touched on a lot of difficult topics: racism, drug abuse, poverty and more.
“Revolution” became a sort of mantra for me when I discovered it in my early 20s, about the same age as Scott was when he recorded it. Whether Gil Scott-Heron would have been insulted, amused or flattered (or any combination thereof) by my adopting his anthem to my own drama, I’ll never know, but what I do know is that for a while, that song meant something to me as few others have.
While I have never been a huge fan of hip-hop music, I have always been discouraged by people who are dismissive of the entire genre (or any genre of music, for that matter). No, it doesn’t all sound the same, any more than the Beatles sound like the Police, than Bach sounds like Stravinsky, than Ellington sounds like ‘Trane or than Johnny Cash sounds like Zac Brown. There are some things about Gil Scott-Heron’s work that still sound out, more than a generation after it was created:
- Very little profanity, other than the occasional “God damn.”
- Celebration of a culture, notably in “Lady Day and John Coltrane.”
- Hope for the future, as in “Save the Children.” (The message in this song is a lot easier to take coming from a 21-year old Gil Scott Heron than it would have been coming from a couple of suits phoning it in.)
- Calling out people on self-destructive behavior (“I know you think you’re cool because you’re shooting that stuff in your arm”) and for ignoring their history (“It’s a little too easy to forget that you were a Negro before Malcolm.”)
- Humor (“Talking about blowing the white boy away; that’s not where it’s at, yet”); (“I think I’ll send these doctor’s bills air mail special…to Whitey on the moon.”)
Add this to some great musicianship from a cast that includes jazz legends Ron Carter, Hubert Laws and Bernard Purdie, and you’ve got quite a package, one that certainly evokes a certain time and place but still sounds relevant today.
While “Revolution” and the rest of Scott-Heron’s catalog eventually moved out of heavy rotation on my playlist, I’ve always been impressed by the emotion and energy he put into his work. He’ll be missed.