Saturday, June 4, 2011
Remembering Gil Scott-Heron
My mother turned me on to Gil Scott Heron. Reflections played often in her circle. It was the year of Survival, and Hotter Than July. But Reflections, when it was on people listened in a different way, and I noticed.
The normal get-down-boogie-stop-shuffle-bounce would be accompanied by the affirmative nodding, uh-huh, right-on, and tell it, of people acknowledging truth being spoken. There is a freedom there, when truth is heard, a freedom we long for. Gil Scott had that gift.
Right away I started borrowing that record into my room. Listening to it repeatedly, in my own time, trying to make his rap mine. At school Gil Scott’s couplets, metaphors and rhymes started making their way into my own. I memorized classics like B-Movie and the poem from Inner City Blues. From behind the words I watched with secret joy the power words could reveal and disclose.
That was 30 years ago, and tonight Gil Scott is gone. On to the ancestors, as we say. But the music, the poetry, lives on in our blood, our lives, our breath with his. You, me, and others.
Back then I had no idea that I was being initiated into a world of art and culture and that I would dedicate my life to it. That would become my life’s work, as it has. Gil Scott is the reason I chose to be who I am today.
Gil Scott was an exemplar of black literature.
As a self-proclaimed Bluesologist, Gil Scott resuscitated the living heritage of rap’s connection with earlier blues poetry forms. See Ted Joans‘ The 38.
Simple-minded critics have called him the Godfather of Rap, a title he refused, directing them to his primary sources of inspiration, Langston Hughes, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar‘s Lyrics of the Lowly Life. As Amiri Baraka said, jazz without the blues is a music without memory, it can be equally said of hip-hop without Gil Scott. (And hip-hop needs it’s memory very badly now, wouldn’t you say?)
There is a general prohibition against speaking the truth about the lives of black men in America. Gil Scott broke through that prohibition, every chance he had, telling our stories, our peoples’ stories, our peoples’ lives. With extraordinary empathy, with gentleness, with violence, bitterness and love. With heartache, passion, and tenderness. Also joy. His music contained the full panorama of our black experience in America. He rejected none of us, and held us all close, even the most hurtful and backward among us, in song. He loved us.
It was through Gil Scott that I found the courage to seek my own voice, speak my own truth, first imitating him, as a child. He helped cut through the demonic clamor of racism and sickness that surrounded. He still does.
Justin Desmangles, Chair of the Before Columbus Foundation, host of New Day Jazz on KDVS at UC Davis