The Prophetic Power of Gil Scott-Heron

Every once in a while, you discover the work of a writer or musician whose words speak directly to you as if they were pulled right from your mind. Other times, their work sheds a revealing light on situations and realities of which you were aware but never really gave much thought. Once your eyes have been opened to these hidden realities, it’s impossible to close them again. I’ve been fortunate enough to discover several artists whose work has left this impression upon me. One of the most profound and relevant to our current times is the late Gil Scott-Heron. It’s a good bet that his name is either unknown to you or known to you because of his most enduring poem/song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, which sounds just as frustratingly relevant today even though it was released fifty years ago. Despite the song’s enduring popularity, Gil Scott-Heron’s legacy can’t be easily boiled down to just one rallying cry. His work encompasses a stunning range of ideas and beliefs concerned with speaking raw truth to power with wit and wisdom and opening up people’s minds to our essential commonalities so we can begin to work together to make this world a much kinder, more compassionate place than we currently find it.

For those like myself who first hooked into Gil through “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” but then dug deeper into his vast body of work, his music and writing cut through to the core of real life for most people in this country, especially those people of color and those on the ragged fringes of a society which often feels like it’s deliberately rigged against honest, decent people striving for a better life for themselves and their loved ones. In one brilliant song after another, Gil takes eagle eyed aim at the plethora of problems — political, social, racial, economical as well as our basic inability to overcome our petty differences— still plaguing us and the long suffering individuals and communities continually caught in the crosshairs. With unflinching honesty, his songs explore these problems and their devastating effects, from heart wrenchingly personal tales of the devastations of joblessness, the dehumanizing effects of prison and hard drug addiction on the ghetto streets to the ongoing struggles for freedom and basic human rights around the world.

This vivid awareness of the many injustices suffered by people in his home country may have been partly influenced by Gil having lived in many diverse places, starting with his birth in Chicago in 1949 and an adolescence spent in Lincoln, Tennessee and the Bronx, NY. He went on to attend Lincoln University and later received his M.S. in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. The importance of education as a tool to self-empowerment and heightened awareness was something Gil used in his work and life to try and bridge the gaps between people of vastly different backgrounds. He thought that poetry and the written word shouldn’t be confined to the exclusivity of the campus or academies but should be accessible to all people, written in clear and direct language and talking openly about topics and issues affecting the everyday people you encounter on the streets of America.

Although he usually kept his eye on the myriad injustices at work in his home country, Gil also advocated for people struggling for equality and better treatment around the world, most notably on his anthemic track “Johannesburg”, a rallying cry of freedom and solidarity with those fighting Apartheid in South Africa. The long and brutal history of African colonization, enslavement and systemic racism hangs like a grim specter in much of Gil’s work. On works such as “Black History/The World”, Gil uses his razor sharp wit to satirize the way in which European colonizers not only murdered and enslaved the indigenous Africans but also erased and white washed their history and culture, acting as though they brought civilization to a wild continent full of untamed savages. Gil writes how this trend of rewriting history has continued to this day, leaving black people (and other indigenous peoples) with totally false and unflattering impressions of themselves. Sarcastic lines like “White folks brought all the civilization/ Since there wasn’t none around/They said ‘how could these folks be civilized/ When you never see nobody writing nothing down?’” speak to the harsh truth that history is always (re)written by the conquerors.

Gil’s passion for equality and freedom extended to all people struggling to rise out of the terrible circumstances in which they found themselves. In his fantastic song “Alien (Hold On To Your Dreams) released in 1980, he puts us in the shoes of illegal immigrants making the dangerous journey to cross the border into America, being double crossed by coyotes and hunted like animals by border patrol, all in a desperate attempt to make a better life for their families back home. During these days when immigration and even asylum seeking is still a hot issue, Gil cuts right to the universal humanity of people struggling, like generations before them, to escape persecution and often death and hold onto their dreams of a better life and a fresh start. That same year, he joined Stevie Wonder on a tour to drum up support for giving Martin Luther King his long overdue holiday, which was finally achieved in 1983. Much of Gil’s work focuses on the struggles of disenfranchised people in the States, particularly those of blacks and other people of color to make a livable wage and rise out of the poverty and desperation of the inner cities in a country where deeply rooted, systemic racism continues to stack the odds against them in everything from jobs, schools and housing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his reworking of Marvin Gaye’s classic “Inner City Blues” where he talks about “Answering ads in the paper about ‘houses for sale’/And get treated like Charles Manson out on bail.”

Gil’s astute commentaries on political corruption and the pervasive inequalities and prejudices built into this nation’s political and justice system seem as irritatingly spot on as ever, whether he’s taking deadly aim at the shameful downfall of Nixon and his administration full of “sauerkraut Mafia Men” in the stunningly brilliant H2Ogate Blues with blisteringly prophetic lines like “How much more evidence do the citizens need/ That the election was sabotaged by trickery and greed?/And, if this is so, and who we got didn’t win/ Let’s do the whole goddamn election over again!” or describing our swamp of a Capitol which he calls an “outhouse of bureaucracy, surrounded by a moat” in “Washington, D.C.” Then there’s his epic “B-Movie”, a scathing indictment of 1980’s consumerist America and its phony cowboy President, Ronald “The Raygun” Reagan. Over twelve glorious minutes, Gil obliterates Raygun and his cronies for making us all unwitting extras in the bad B-Movie that was the consumerist nightmare of 1980’s America.

Still, of all his songs, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” has taken on a life all its own. It’s easy to see why. At first listen, it seems like a radical call for social revolution delivered in one poetic gut punch after another, Gil defiantly shouting out each line over a driving and pulsating jazz rhythm. “You will not be able to stay home, brother/ You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out/You will not be able to lose yourself on skag/And skip out for beer during commercials, because/The revolution will not be televised”. Gil’s voice grabs the listener by the collar and won’t let go. Lines like “There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay,” lunge out at the listener as fiercely as when the song was released fifty years ago, even more so given how in 2020 we still see endless images of unarmed black people shot down by cops. Many of the song’s references may be dated now, but its impact still explodes like a hand grenade in your consciousness. However, underneath the defiant delivery Gil’s true message, elaborated on in interviews he later gave, is that real revolution has to start in people’s minds.

“The first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move. So when we said that the revolution will not be televised, we’re saying that the thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film. It’ll just be something you see and all of a sudden you realize, I’m on the wrong page, or I’m on the right page but I’m on the wrong note.” — Gil Scott-Heron.

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” may be a rousing call for social awareness, but Gil was also concerned about the everyday work of regular people to support and improve life in their communities. He understood that lasting change has to start in our own backyards before it can spread outwards. In songs like “Save The Children”, Gil speaks to the importance of fostering and nourishing the dreams of our children since it’ll one day fall to them to try and improve the world that’ll be dropped in their laps. He also emphasized the importance of family and the influence of our ancestors on shaping who we are, something beautifully highlighted in his poem and later song, “On Coming From a Broken Home”, where he praises the strength and virtues of the mother and grandmother who raised him into the man he was. Over a career which saw the release of thirteen albums plus three novels and several volumes of his lyrics and poetry, Gil addressed a stunning array of issues ranging from fears of nuclear catastrophe (We Almost Lost Detroit), the absurdity of wasting money sending men to the moon while people starve and die of treatable diseases back home (Whitey on the Moon), the dangers of the military-industrial complex (Work For Peace) as well as police brutality and systemic racism in works such as “No Knock”, a grimly prophetic and hard hitting spoken rhyme poem about the ongoing use of no knock warrants, such as that which led to the death of Breonna Taylor, among countless others.

The brutal honesty and raw power of his no nonsense lyrics, often delivered in his signature spoken word rhymes helped to secure Gil’s position among many as the “Godfather of socially conscious rap.” While it’s certainly true that Gil’s lyrical prowess helped paved the way for what later became hip hop, his music also fused together elements of blues, jazz, soul, funk and Afro-Caribbean rhythms to create what Gil once aptly described as “Midnight Music”. Gil wasn’t afraid to call out those later rappers, many of whom were inspired by him, whose lyrics and lifestyles helped to perpetuate the ongoing stereotypes of blacks as nothing more than gun toting, drug dealing criminals. In his song “Message to the Messengers” he warns that promoting images of this violent lifestyle only reinforce those terrible perceptions of blacks, playing right into the hands of those in power who rely on stereotypes to keep African Americans down and their communities divided. Gil urges his hip hop comrades to use their platform to inspire support and cooperation in their communities, nurture the dreams of their kids, take care of their elderly folks and treat their women with the respect they deserve.

Gil wasn’t afraid to take a brutally honest look at the scourges plaguing those communities in which he grew up and lived, chief among them the life destroying effects of hard drug addiction and alcoholism. One of his most beloved songs, “The Bottle” deals nakedly with the ravages of alcoholism, not only its brutal effects but also many of the socio-economic pressures and the stigma which often lead otherwise good people to fall into the vicious trap of addiction, captured in lines such as “He wuz a doctor helpin’ young girls along/If they wuzn’t too far gone to have problems/But defenders of the dollar eagle/ Said ‘What you doin’, Doc, it ain’t legal,’/and now he’s in the bottle.” In one of this most scathing comments of life in America, “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”, he sings “You keep sayin’ kick it, quit it, kick it, quit it!/ God, did you ever try/ to turn your sick soul inside out so that the world/ can watch you die?’’

The sad irony is that Gil eventually fell into the same trap which songs like “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust” warn us about, culminating in two arrests for cocaine and crack possession in 2001 and 2003. Gil’s struggles with drug addiction and his own demons are a sad example of the truth found in so many of his songs; none of us are immune to the darkness of the world and the demons inside. We all get caught in various traps and this is why we can’t be so quick to judge and condemn others. Despite prison and declining health in his later years due to being diagnosed HIV positive, Gil managed a comeback, going on tour after a long hiatus and releasing a memoir entitled The Last Holiday as well as recording what became his final album, 2010’s I’m New Here, featuring a weathered and world weary Gil but one no less committed to dispensing his hard won wisdom and speaking truth. Even though he passed in 2011, Gil’s legacy lives on through the countless lives he touched and continues to touch, both in his life and through his work. His message is universal and timeless, but during these recent dark days of anger and bitter division, days when, as he so prophetically sang in his song, “Winter in America”, we still see “last ditch racists marching across the floor,” his appeals to common sense and decency and his passionate belief in our shared humanity and desire for fair and equal treatment are needed more urgently than ever.

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