Poetry News

Hello, Gil Scott-Heron

By Harriet Staff

gil scott heron

Pitchfork's Andrew Nosnitsky entrances us with a portrait of the late Gil Scott-Heron, who passed away in May 2011. The poet, novelist, singer, satirist, and father of four was 62, and "[i]n revisiting his catalog and talking to the people closest to him, it doesn't take long to see past the catchphrase and recognize him as a much more complex artist and human." And Nosnitsky does just that here, having talked with the likes of Larry McDonald, percussionist; Lurma Rackley, girlfriend and mother of Gil's son Rumal; and Gary Price, housemate. The piece also includes responses from Gil about the "reductionist assumption that he was just a political firebrand":

I don't know if I was as angry as I was misunderstood. I think that a lot of the things we did contained a lot of humor that went over people's heads. We were clearly coming from a small southern town in Tennessee and we didn't estimate what effect we'd have on national and international governments. We were trying to represent our community and speak about the things there. If people don't understand the humor then it's angry, but if people see the juxtaposition of the ideas then they understand where we're coming from. Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar and people of that nature always felt that humor was the best way to see a point of view.

Nosnitsky relates Scott-Heron's debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970) to the artist's poetry:

Gil, Jet, 1979: There is a long history of black artists who have not separated their art from their lives. They use their art and their talent as an extension of the community, to reflect the mood, the sensitivity, the circumstances.

Gil, Mediawave Festival, 2010: All of those poems don't just represent me, they represent the people I know and see. Some of them were angry, some of them were upset, some of them were parents, some of them were in love with their children, some of them were trying to get jobs, some of them were working with their jobs, some of them had problems with their women. "Pieces of a Man" is about a son seeing his father who just lost his job. I never saw that [personally], but I saw a friend of mine whose father went a little berserk when he lost his job. "Your Daddy Loves You" is not about anger and hellraising, it's about the fact that sometimes men have so many things on their mind they forget to say, "I love you." You have to show the normalcy of your community to show the humanity of your community. A good poet feels what his community feels. Like if you stub your toe, the rest of your body hurts.

Scott-Heron's relationship with hip-hop and vice versa:

While the hip-hop world, particularly those artists residing on its "conscious rap" shores, embraced Gil Scott-Heron that relationship was not without certain misconceptions, either. It's difficult to find any press from the past 20 years that doesn't explicitly frame Gil as a progenitor to hip-hop. It's equally difficult to find many conversations where he then doesn't explicitly rebuke those comparisons, though usually in good humor.

Gil, BBC's "Hard Talk", 2000: I generally try to put credit where credit is due. For those viewers that go around boom-box bashing-- I am not the one that's responsible. [laughs] For others, I think we came along at a time where there was a transition going on in terms of poetry and music and we were one of the first groups to combine the two... and for that reason I think a lot of people picked up and decided we were the ones who had originated it.

There were parallels to be sure, but to exaggerate them to influence is to overlook the differences of influence. Hip-hop's roots stemmed more directly from radio jocks and reggae toasters, while Gil drew his primary influence from the pages of Harlem Renaissance literature. Gil self-identified as a poet first and foremost (or pianist or "bluesologist"); rapping was simply one of his vehicles. He was a godfather of a bastard child by circumstance. Of course, the parallels helped sustain Gil's later career as many of young listeners (this writer included) came to his music through hip-hop sample sources and incessant name drops, but it's strange and maybe a little disrespectful that someone who was so powerful in his own time is now defined primarily by what came after. Presumably, this is the curse of being ahead of the curve, but this was just one of the many curves he rode along in his career.

Read the entire profile here.

Originally Published: January 20th, 2012