I’ve tried and failed to write something about Gil Scott-Heron’s life and career since I heard the news of his death. It’s been hard, simply because I want to do his story justice, even if I don’t command a huge audience. I want everyone to know what his music meant.
The first time I heard his music was his early recording “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” A cliché, I know, but listen to a best-of compilation and that’s what you’ll get. It was angry and funny all at the same time. Looking at Scott-Heron’s career, that’s what stands out to me – his wit, his forceful intelligence, and his ability to find humour in the darkest of places.
He did not by any account have an easy life, and even in the latter phase of his career as an elder statesman of music, there was every indication that his demons were still with him. Nevertheless, just last year he produced a stunning comeback album. I’m New Here is a document, a record from a man who has been through hardship and despair, and has come out of it hardened, but still sensitive. In its fusing of plaintive blues vocals with minimalist hip-hop beats, it becomes a synthesis of black music through American history.
There is also the irony of an artist whose early spoken-word work is credited with influencing the birth of hip-hop sampling a hip-hop track for the opening and closing tracks of I’m New Here. The spoken-word segments of the album become as important as the songs: Gil Scott-Heron switches effortlessly between talking, singing and declaiming. His message is primary, the manner in which he gets it across is secondary.
And he remains a wonderful storyteller, able to come up with turns of phrase that leave you stunned or smiling. I saw him perform at London’s Royal Festival Hall in the spring of 2010, on one of his late-period world tours. With a band of three, and that voice of his, he kept a packed venue enthralled. He had a comedian’s gift for the well-placed joke, and a preacher’s gift for making a congregation hang on his every word. It was a privilege to see him in person.
He’s gone, but his music and writing remains. If it inspires one more person to look at the world they live in, and decide to make it a better place, then he will have achieved his goals. And if this piece of writing inspires one more person to listen to his work, then I will have achieved mine.