May saw the passing of Gil Scott-Heron, a musician and activist whose talent and importance cannot be over-stated. “The Godfather of Hip Hop” tag was one he shunned; besides being a cliché it also fails to do justice to a career of over 20 albums and an artist who refused to compromise.
Gil’s politics were unashamedly revolutionary. His songs spoke of the nature of exploitation and alienation with unparalleled eloquence. He also tried to paint a picture of an alternative to capitalism. Indeed his work of the 70s is like a blueprint for socialism, forming a major element of the Black Panther Party’s political orientation curriculum.
“I sail on in my paper ship, the sea is made of fire, I ride my horse of nuts and bolts, we’re made to never tire.” The opening line from “Or Down You’ll Fall” succinctly encapsulates the precarious tedium and alienation of waged labour, of living hand to mouth in monotonous drudgery. While, “A brand new sense of freedom, a brand new sense of time” reflects aspirations for a society beyond that drudgery where men and women relate to each other and their lives in a more spontaneous, productive manner.
His work defied categorisation, spanning griot-style spoken word, jazz, soul, reggae and blues. His ability to write a catchy pop tunes like “Lady Day and John Coltrane” or “The Bottle” meant he was coveted by major labels but never signed because of his reluctance to dilute the politics in his work.
Even the heady escapism of “Lady Day…” still emphasises the fact that people had something they needed to escape from, “Plastic people with plastic minds are on their way to plastic homes… until our hero rides in on his saxophone”. The infectious groove of “The Bottle” also carries a dark lyrical content about trying escape the reality of capitalist America.
Gil’s activism saw him play a key role in the campaign to have Martin Luther King’s birthday marked as a national holiday. He was also a vocal supporter of the international labour movement as was evident in works like “Blue Collar” and “3 Miles Down”.
The specific political commentary in his work covered the Watergate scandal (in “H20 Gate Blues”), the election of Reagan in “B Movie” and the decline of the civil rights movement in “Winter in America”. Songs like “Johannesburg” voiced his opposition for to the apartheid regime, while “Work for Peace” condemned the first invasion of Iraq in 1991.
Heron didn’t start hip hop and never claimed to but he did try to guide it. His 1992 track “Message to the Messengers” provided an open letter to rappers expressing his concerns about misogyny and gangsterism. It largely fell on deaf ears, as was evident in the “Ghetto Fabulous” mentality that took over, it did provide the basis for Talib Kweli’s 1995 “The Manifesto” which was a 10-point programme for conscious Hip Hop.
The lack of recognition and appreciation for Gil Scott-Heron was highlighted by his recent imprisonment for cocaine possession. He struggled with addiction for decades, and his candid attitude about his weakness made him an easy target for the authorities.
The music press acclaim for his 2010 album, “I’m New Here” seems like praise out of obligation for overlooking him for the majority of his career. He produced work which was far more deserving of praise. But late praise is better than none at all. The world of music is a better place for his contribution and he should be sorely missed.