Many of the obituaries for Gil Scott-Heron that I’ve read this weekend refer to him as “the Godfather of Rap” or “the Godfather of Hip-Hop.” While there is truth in both of those claims, each of them strikes me as one of those things that one writes when they’re on a deadline, and don’t have the time to fully delve into what made an artist special.
In the liner notes for the Scott-Heron “Best of” collection released in 1984, Nelson George called him a “keyboardist, poet, singer, rapper, and teller of uncomfortable truths.” For me, that pretty much nails it. You can listen to a Scott-Heron song and be enjoying the melody, and then all of a sudden a phrase or two catches your ear. You pull out the lyric sheet, and you’re no longer enjoying the music in quite the same way. You’re an engaged listener. The work of Scott-Heron was not meant to be disposable; it was meant to make you sit up and take notice…and hopefully, take action.
Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’
But I’m glad to see resistance growin’
Somebody tell me what’s the word
Tell me, Brother, have you heard from
It’s worth noting that Scott-Heron released “Johannesburg in 1975, nearly an entire decade before “Artists United Against Apartheid” came together to bring what was happening in South Africa to the attention of the world. In that sense (and others), Scott-Heron was an artist well ahead of his time. It’s also worth noting that “Johannesburg” is a hell of a great party song – stick a bunch of different lyrics in there and hand it over to a group like the Spinners or the O’Jays, and in the mid-seventies you just might have had yourself a #1 song on your hands. So it’s not as if Scott-Heron didn’t know how to make you get out on the dance floor – just listen to “Race Track in France” if you have doubts about that.
What has happened is that in the last 20 years, America has changed from a producer to a consumer. And all consumers know that when the producer names the tune...the consumer has got to dance. That's the way it is. We used to be a producer – very inflexible at that, and now we are consumers and, finding it difficult to understand. Natural resources and minerals will change your world. The Arabs used to be in the 3rd World. They have bought the 2nd World and put a firm down payment on the 1st one. Controlling your resources will control your world. This country has been surprised by the way the world looks now. They don't know if they want to be Matt Dillon or Bob Dylan. They don't know if they want to be diplomats or continue the same policy - of nuclear nightmare diplomacy. John Foster Dulles ain't nothing but the name of an airport now.
- B Movie
Those are not the kind of lyrics you’d seen in any song today, in any genre. You read them and you’re probably thinking to yourself, how can this possibly be something you’d want to listen to? All Scott-Heron needed to turn this into one of the most compelling pieces of political art of the last 40 years was bass and drums. And you don’t even have to agree with what he’s saying – in fact, I’d venture a guess that most people won’t agree with everything he says in this song, and some people won’t agree with anything he says in this song. But you can’t discount the power of the delivery, and the effectiveness of the message.
So many other songs that could be included in a respectful retrospective: “The Bottle, “We Almost Lost Detroit,” and of course the legendary “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” But my favorite Scott-Heron song is one of his most mournful – “Winter in America.” It’s a mournful song because it talks about the country that we want to be – and in very painful fashion, peels off the layers to expose the reasons why we’re not quite there yet. And will never be there, frankly; because Utopia doesn’t exist now, and it never will. But that was the brilliance of Gil Scott-Heron – he understood, like a few others before him and since, that only by talking about our faults can we do something about them.