Gil Scott-Heron changed my life - and his humane message still resonates | Gil Scott-Heron | MCU Times

Gil Scott-Heron changed my life – and his humane message still resonates | Gil Scott-Heron

IIn 1986, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was inaugurated in Cleveland, Ohio, I toured Europe with artist, poet, author, and civil rights activist Gil Scott-Heron. At the time, you would not have readily associated someone like Gil with the term rock’n’roll. In fact, people struggled to find a genre name that could encapsulate this urban griots unique and diverse repertoire. Gil often joked that if you wanted to find his music in the record store, then “look for a category that says miscellaneous”; true innovators do not fit into established genres, but create them.

Nevertheless, Gil will be inducted this year, a mark of how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has diversified and incorporated other musical forms, including hip hop. Public Enemy was inducted in 2013, and this year Jay-Z and LL Cool J will join the ranks alongside Gil.

This is a gripping and meaningful juxtaposition: Gil became known as the godfather of rap because of his use of poetry over tribal beats, in the style popularized by his predecessors, The Last Poets and Watts Prophets. Gil’s 1970 debut album for Bob Theil’s label, Flying Dutchman – titled Small Talk at 125th and Lenox – delivered the now iconic proto-rap The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, since appearing everywhere from Denzel Washington boxing film The Hurricane to Mandela: The Long Go to Freedom, from Grand Theft Auto to a Nike commercial.

Born in Chicago on April 19, 1949, Gil spent much of his childhood with his grandmother Lillie Scott in Jackson, Tennessee, after his father Gil Heron traveled to Scotland to become Celtic FC’s first black player. It was in Tennessee that Gil learned blues on an old piano that Lillie bought him; Memphis was within radio range, and with the help of the black stations that were always right at the end of the record, Gil honed his craft during that era of racial segregation, governed by the Jim Crow laws. This American apartheid system would manifest itself in Gil’s repertoire in songs such as The Klan and cause Gil to join the Artists United Against Apartheid movement, which eventually helped liberate Nelson Mandela and overthrow the South African white minority colonialist government. Gil took the struggles of racial segregation and combined them with the blues to create an ambient mix of protest, pain and melody, which he referred to as “bluesology” – the science of the blues.

After two more albums for Flying Dutchman Records, Pieces of a Man and Free Will, Gil had his biggest hit for the Strata-East record with the track The Bottle, which brought him to the attention of Clive Davis, who signed Gil when he launched Arista Records . Gil had moved to New York, where he lived in a Latin American neighborhood, learned Spanish, and incorporated the situation of Latin American society into his repertoire with songs like Alien (Hold on to Your Dreams) about Latin American immigrants and Jose Campos Torres, ca. the Mexican-American man whose murder by Houston police led to a riot when the convicted officers were given suspended sentences and a $ 1 fine.

He often collaborated with Brian Jackson and delivered nine albums to Arista between 1975 and 1982, the last of which, Moving Target, was my own introduction to his music. In 1984, I was 18 and had just come out of nine years in municipal care. My caring experience had been brutal and traumatic. I was cared for after my Guyanese father had a stroke and was paralyzed and my Welsh mother struggled to cope. After being imprisoned in isolation, physically beaten, racistly abused, stabbed and deprived of formal schooling for years, I needed healing and guidance. Gil took care of both after a chance meeting backstage when he played Liverpool’s Royal Court Theater in 1984. Gil took me on tour with the band, mentored me in the industry and helped me become literary through poetry. This allowed me, during the 27 years we worked together, to become a performance poet with my band Malik & the O.G.’s, and to go to college and university. I earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and today, 10 years after Gil’s death, I am studying for a PhD degree at the University of Cambridge with a full scholarship.

Gil Scott-Heron will perform in 2010.
Gil Scott-Heron will perform in 2010. Photo: David Corio / Redferns

Gil taught me to “study black history to know where you’re coming from so you know where you’re going.” As such, I traced my own ancestry back through the slave plantations in Demerara, which is the subject of my PhD. – I published my results on the BBC and got a two-book deal with HarperCollins.

In 2010, we embarked on what would be the last tour to promote Gil’s latest album, I’m New Here – I drove Gil most of the UK stage and served as his personal assistant throughout the European tour. We spent some amazing quality time together and were reminded of how far I had come since the fateful day backstage at the Royal Court Theater in 1984.

Gil died shortly after, in 2011. I told my story to The Guardian, and that article formed the basis of my memoir Letters to Gil. It tells the story of how the state failed me, but then Gil saved me from a worse fate; how his kind intervention at such a critical time changed the course of my life, from the streets to the highest educational institution; how he used spoken words to heal me and save the emotional wounds that society and a racist care system had inflicted on me as a black child growing up in the 1970s and 80s. But beyond his indelible imprint on my own life, Gil’s influence spans more than the music and literature he wrote – he worked tirelessly for justice for the oppressed and needy among us and teased the humanity of society out of its apathy.

In 2012, Gil was posthumously awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. Had he not died the year before, he might have been standing next to Diana Ross when she received her same year. It is also fitting that his name this year was named next to – among others – Tina Turner, as Gil’s influence continues to permeate all kinds of music. As his protégé, I will strive to take the baton from him, as he got it passed from the last poets, as they passed it on from the streets of Harlem, which was sent it from Georgia’s cotton fields, which was passed on from the griots of Africa, until freedom and justice have been achieved – and the cipher is complete.

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