Gil Scott Heron: Speaking the Word in Perpetuity
April 1, 1949-May 27, 2011
By Daphne Muse
We partied to “The Bottle,” “It’s Your World” and “Whitey on the Moon.” Our feet pounded the pavement in protest to his rivetingly bold and truthfully spoken words of “The King Alfred Plan,” “No Knock” and “The Revolution will not be televised.” But of late, we’ve witnessed the revolution televised on Democracy Now, Al Jazeera and CNN. His music and poetry were instrumental in my formation as a revolutionary and Chocolate City Momma*.
As we graded papers, parented our daughter and drove long stretches of road to escape the staccato intensity of urban madness, my husband David and I listened to and got our call and response groove on affirming the brilliance of Gil Scott Heron. He had one of those names that I acknowledged by calling it up completely. Despite a spirit broken by drugs, his voice never wavered in its insistence to overturn oppression and apartheid, as he marched us on the roads of insurrection from “South Carolina to South Africa”. My daughter phoned me just as she was signing off from the celebration of her 38th birthday to tell me his energy had been recast and he’d made his transition back to spirit.
Gil Scott Heron was profoundly influenced by Harlem Renaissance poet and novelist Langston Hughes. He inherited the passion and pride Hughes had for black life in its everyday representations. Oh to be in a place where Langston’s Jesse B. Semple was mixin’ up some deep discourse with Gil Scott Heron’s “Possum Slim.”
His opus “Pieces of a Man,” backed by bassist Ron Carter’s impeccable timing and Hubert Laws on flute, still mines the archeology of my soul. Masterful collaborations with Brian Jackson and Alice Coltrane, including “Must Be Something” and “Trane” (written originally as “Gospel Train) stand at the pinnacle of a formidable intersection of soul music, jazz, spoken word poetry and the embryonic years of Rap. “Who’ll Pay Reparations?” became a major touch stone for the thoughts and actions that propelled me through an era of revolution in America.
In the late 70s, composer and poet Ayana Plummer a classmate of mine from Fisk introduced me to Gil Scott Heron and his band mates, before a performance at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, DC. His spirit was reverberating with that Curtis Mayfield kind of red beans and pig’s feet soul. There was also a sadness that permeated his aura and his voice sounded scratched by some of life’s deepest cuts. His eyes seemingly lay hidden in the depths of an unexplored canyon and those lush lips sported a particular kind of pout.
In March 2010, as we sat eating sushi and drinking plum wine, Sala Ajanaku, Maria Rosa Keys and I spotted his reflection on the glass as he rounded the corner pulling his own suitcase; no limousine ceremoniously deposited him in front of Yoshi’s. He looked worn and weathered like an old Be Bop cap. But the cap mashing down a mound of gray hair could not hide the mischievous smile beaming off those lush lips. We waved, as he nodded back in recognition from fans assembled to hear what would be Gil Scott Heron clearly on top of his world.
That night at Yoshi’s for those who may have forgotten, he reminded us that it was still “Winter in America,” and we “Almost Lost Detroit” (again). He also gave us a fascinating lesson on the history and roots of jazz paying homage to all the rightful legacies, and told jokes that took me nowhere near the sectors in my soul that his music did. That performance also was a journey back to the future to a promise I so earnestly worked to fulfill for my daughter, grandchildren, students and so many of their generation all over the world. In the pantheon of American music that’s gone global, Gil Scott Heron will continue to stand in his power and honor his truth with generations bound to “discover” him, just as my eighteen-year-old granddaughter discovered Nina Simone last week.
*There was a time when the demographics of DC were such that it really was a Chocolate City.
Daphne Muse is a poet and social commentator who lives in Oakland, California where she recues orchids and grows collard greens.