Remembering Gil Scott-Heron

As I write, the news has just crossed the wire that Gil Scott-Heron died on April 27, at only 62 years old. He was among a select handful of the musicians most influential for the rise of hip-hop music and slam poetry, during its immediate pre-history from the late 1960s to early 1980s.

I first heard Scott-Heron in the 1970s for his signature anthem of black militancy, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”; and I heard him on tour in the 1980s when he was trying to imagine how to keep hope alive during what he called (in one of his deepest, most spiritually evocative songs) “Winter in America.” These were not exactly mainstream hits, but they were very well known and influential within a community of musicians and activists concerned about issues of social justice; and they pioneered some of the forms of blending spoken word, rhythm, and music that later took the world by storm as hip-hop music.

Later, during an era of music videos and mainstream commercial rap, less and less that Scott-Heron produced made the transition to a mainstream lingua franca or commercial success. For a long stretch between the mid 1980s and 2010 he released only one record, and he battled drug problems. In 2005, on the record Beautiful Struggle, Talib Kweli commented on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” in this way:

I’ve heard it said the revolution won’t be televised
But in this land of milk and honey there’s a date you’ve got to sell it by
Otherwise it just expires and spoils
And these folks jump out the pot when the water’s too hot, because the fire boils.

Nevertheless, Scott-Heron remained a significant creative force, and in 2010 his record I’m New Here was well received (for example earning a 8.5 rating on Pitchfork.com). There would be no Talib Kweli or other exemplary conscious rappers like Lupe Fiasco without the trailblazing work of Scott-Heron and others from his generation.

So let us honor him today by remembering one of his most powerful poems, which has by no means has lost its relevance for musicians, spoken word artists, activists (religious or otherwise), and indeed anyone concerned about issues of justice in our society. Rest in peace, Gil Scott-Heron.

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)
[SNIP]
Taxes takin’ my whole damn check,
Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck,
The price of food is goin’ up,
An’ as if all that shit wuzn’t enough:
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face an’ arm began to swell.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ‘bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
Airmail special
(to Whitey on the moon)

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