In one of his last interviews before he sadly passed away at the weekend Gil Scott Heron said, "If someone comes to you and asks for help, and you can help them, you're supposed to help them. Why wouldn't you? You have been put in the position somehow to be able to help this person…. These are gifts that you have been given and you’re not supposed to keep them to yourself." Well, it was not strictly what he was talking about but Gil certainly helped me. It was discovering my love for Gil’s music that persuaded the gorgeous African woman who later became my wife that this rhythm-free, white civil servant might actually be cool enough for her to take a continued interest in after all.
Although I did not have the good fortune to meet the man to thank him, I hope that Gil would have liked this story. He was best known for his searing political commentary, most famously in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. But for him the political was inseparable from the personal and a closer reading of his work shows that everything he wrote was shot through with compassion for humanity. The purpose of his politics was to overcome hatred and injustice, so that people could live in freedom, with love and respect for one another.
Gil has often been referred to as “the Godfather of Rap”, based on some of his output being spoken-word, performed rhythmically to music. He was never entirely comfortable with this title and rightly so, as it is far too restrictive a description for an artist whose music, poetry and novels offer an unsurpassed documentation of the (particularly but not exclusively) black, American experience over the last half-century. Gil preferred the term “bluesology” to sum up his work. This more accurately reflects his genius in blending the great musical traditions of blues, jazz and soul with the literary heritage of Langston Hughes, the political inheritance of WEB du Bois and Marcus Garvey and the social activism of the civil rights movement to create something new, unique and sharply relevant to the era in which he lived.
"If someone comes to you and asks for help, and you can help them, you're supposed to help them. Why wouldn't you?"
Gil also had little in common with much of today’s mainstream rap. He could not have been further from the self-aggrandising, misogynist cartoon gangstas who abet the perpetuation of racist stereotypes in their selfish pursuit of material wealth. He believed that everyone had a responsibility for making the society in which they lived a better place. As a committed activist, he was, in his genial way, critical of those who failed to take responsibility for changing things for the better, saying that until you had at least tried to fight injustice or tackle your problems then “the last thing available to you is the right to complain”.
It is common these days to assume that political commentary leads to dull, worthy music. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Gil Scott Heron. Gil’s thirst for justice stemmed from his love of life and people. Even his most angry songs came laced with biting wit. And, as with the other socially conscious greats of his generation such as Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, the tunes were as funky as hell. They were not all overtly political either. The only thought provoked by a joyful belter such as “Lady Day and John Coltrane” is “blimey, isn’t music brilliant”.
The news of Gil’s passing was not a complete surprise. He had been struggling for some time with the health implications of the addictions he had fallen prey to in the later decades of his life. These made his earlier, magnificent and compassionate songs about addiction, such as “Home is Where the Hatred is” and “The Bottle” seem retrospectively, and distressingly, autobiographical. Even before his most recent album “I’m New Here”, turned out to be his final one, it had an eerily valedictory feel, with Gil coming across as a wise elder statesman running low on stamina. Untypically, many of the concerns expressed were a reflection on life, rather than a manifesto for improving it. It contained a tribute to the Grandmother, Lily Scott, who largely raised him and imbued him with such an admirable moral code, and a characteristically wry acknowledgement of his own failings in lines like “if you’ve got to pay for the things you’ve done wrong, then I’ve got a big bill coming!".
It is still sad to see Gil go. As a legacy, he leaves a mighty body of work for future generations to enjoy whilst learning about what it is to be human in the process. For me, there is also a personal bequest in that sometimes when I look at my lovely wife, I will inwardly give thanks to a great musician and an outstanding man.
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