Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Revolution Can Not Die: A Tribute to Gil Scott Heron

(Baltimore)- The news came like a “ton of bricks,” Gil Scott Heron dies in New York. For a group of Africans-Americans who came of age after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the aftermath of Malcolm X’s assassination, Heron spoke to us in a unique way. The hip-hop generation of conscious rappers knew of him and heavily sampled his most famous work “The Bottle.” He was their so call “God Father of Rap.” But the artist and the poet chastised them and didn’t like the title. He made clear in his thoughts in the Message to the Messengers,

“If you’re gonna be teachin folks you ought to know what you talkin about… You ain’t said no words I ain’t said.“
The platitudes that will follow his death will come in waves, but there is a generation which was defined by his emergence in the Black arts movement. We were militants without the guns but rather the pen.

I know this because I knew of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, but they were writers in books. The media choice for me was on record. I understood why Jimi Hendrix’s guitar wailed to the amazement of my white friends. James Browns, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I'm Proud” and Nina Simone’s “Young Gifted and Black” were more than their words, their songs gave hope. I was still searching for an the answer and it came through the radio one day with the spoken word of Nikki Giovanni and her classic “Like a Ripple on a Pond.” It was both sexy and Black…it was young and eloquent…and it provides a means to speak to young ladies. Throw in Funkadelic’s “America Eats its Young” and my vocabulary expanded, but it was turned upside down by the Last Poets. Yea, with Afro, a liberation badge, and a black fist pick I was ready. I found myself going to see people who would become notorious, H. Rap Brown.

The brothers began to show up in parks (mine was Druid Hill Park) with congas and bongos. These marathon jam sessions would often feature poets and that’s when I first saw a poet named Gil Scott Heron in 1973(I recently discover he was working on his masters while living in Baltimore). He was riffing on something associated with Richard Nixon (I would later learn it was the H20gate Blues).

Traveling to college I was such a Sly Stone fan, I went to the music store to cop his latest album. While in the store they were playing “The Bottle” from Winter in America. I would purchase this album and take it back to my dorm. Hearing the Watergate Blues took me back to hearing him in the park. The Bottle however, became a signature song for those of us in 1975.

I would take my fascination with music and make it my major and career. This would allow me to receive much of Heron’s music. In 1976, when the world seemed consumed by the 200th anniversary of the nation, I questioned why any Black person would be celebrating. In a word I was bitter. To console my attitude was Gil,and Jean Claude T's, "Bicentennial Poet."

When my entire family went to see the tall ships at the Inner Harbor on the 4th of July, I refused to participate. I returned to school with lots of attitude. When the album Secrets arrived a song they were pushing was “Angel Dust.” I convinced a rock station to put an "Angel Dust" public service announcement by the artist into heavy rotation. He would come to Richmond on several occasions and I would get a backstage pass to hang out. Another song which got heavy rotation on the station was Johannesburg.

By the time I finished college, I was on my way to the West Palm Beach, Florida. In late 1982 album, Heron released an album called Reflections. Disco was starting to wane and here was this conscious album. R and B radio stations had given up on the artist. His music wasn’t commercial. Like many of his albums there was a spoken word song called "B-Movie" (a tribute to Ronald Reagan-I love the fact he refereed to him as Ray-gun). It was an interesting commentary on the Republican President.

In March of 1981, there was an assassination attempt on the president. Watching the event and listening to the song appeared to be the perfect sound track. Working at an ABC affiliate we had saved a lot of footage from the incident. I thought it would be curious to provide video of the shooting and the song. Initially, I was going to keep it for my personal files, but then I was asked to appear on a public affairs program at WPEC-TV with Anita Sewell. I felt I could use this with my appearance. The program was pre-taped and would air on a Sunday morning around 8 am. I thought nothing of it and did what I normally did. When I arrive on Monday the receptionist at the station stopped me. She let me know there were 10 messages on the switch board asking about the show and my appearance. I immediately made an extra copy and called the head of the West Palm Beach Urban League. I told him, "I need you to hold on to a tape in case there was a problem at the station." Later, Sewall would pull me aside and let me know she got a call from the owner. He’d received several phone calls from friends. She assured me it was nothing. I would leave the station before I could be questioned about the incident.

The Stevie Wonder Experience

Stevie Wonder’s affect on music is global. Wonder once open for the Rolling Stones and was booed. I think he learned from that experience. He was familiar with Scott because he appears on Songs in the Key of Life. The album wins a record number of Grammy awards and there is a credit to Scott on the album.

The follow-up to this album is Hotter Than July. In support of this album the plan was to ask Bob Marley and the Wailers to open the tour. Marley was diagnosed with cancer, the replacement Gil Scott and his band.

The album contains the most important song of Scott’s generation, "Happy Birthday," a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The song becomes an anthem which forced a reluctant President Reagan to sign legislation making January 15th, the official national holiday. The experience would change the spoken word artist. You can see a clip of their performance.

Reacquainted with an Artist

I step away from media in 1987, I come back in 1991. I make my return via WEAA-FM in Baltimore. As a jazz station we got a lot of jazz artist popping through the door. So you can imagine my surprise when we learned Heron was playing at a club in the city. I agreed to bring in my collection of former albums. Joe Lee was the music director. He reminded me that many of the discs had pops and scratches. I reminded him how I wore out the music.

When he arrived I was taken aback by his look. The vibrant young man who I saw in the 70's appeared frail. I would learn he battled a crack drug addiction. Despite his physical appearance, his performance was as good as I had seen him in the 70’s.

Off and on I would see articles about him. Several R and B, and Jazz artist of that era have found willing audiences in London and on the stages of Europe. Artist such as Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, and Roy Ayers have found renewed interest overseas and returned to United States to find larger followings.

Picking up on Scott's work was the new genre of "Hip-Hop." While there was a wave of conscious rappers there were others who had dubious aspirations. The genre felt they owed something t o Scott and many sampled his work. They began calling him the “God Father of Rap.” It was a title he rejected as explained earlier.

Despite writing about the drug epidemic he wasn’t immune from it. He was arrested and went to jail.

Sometimes I get asked to attend events and the day gets the better of me. One of those invites came in 2009 with the "Poets in the Park" event. Gil Scott Heron was there, but I wasn’t. One of the young “Turks of Journalism,” Bobby Marvin captured the event.the

It is tough to measure the impact of Scott on generations of those who take to pen and pad, and try to capture what is going on. He was eloquent, poetic, professorial, and timely. He critiqued a society he thought was out of control and believed is still out of control. Truth is difficult to distract with spin. Scott knew this, and often confronted the conventional. Let the word go forth from here, how do you keep the revolution he saw alive because it will not be televised. Listen to one of his last interviews.

Charles Robinson, III

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