Reflections on Gil Scott-Heron
by Norman (Otis) Richmond aka Jalali
Gil Scott-Heron’s repertoire was as wide and deep as the audience that loved him. “He dealt with racism, capitalism, the environment, Pan-Africanism, substance abuse, nuclear power, women's liberation and just plain ‘silly’ little love songs.”
Reflections on Gil Scott-Heron
by Norman (Otis) Richmond aka Jalali
“Scott-Heron was beyond category.”
“We do what we do and how we do because of you. And to those that don’t know, tip your hat with a hand over your heart and recognize.” This is how Chuck D of Public Enemy summed up Gil Scott-Heron. Scott-Heron’s musical career spanned five decades; he released twenty albums, and many seminal singles. He was a key figure in the creation of spoken word poetry and many maintain he is the “Godfather of Rap.” However, he never referred to himself in that manner. His socially conscious work has been described as, “savagely satirical, and disarmingly tenderhearted.” His death on May 27, 2011 robbed Africans in America and the whole world of one of its most eloquent and influential artist-activists.
Like the Washington D.C.-born Duke Ellington, Scott-Heron was beyond category. His music covered the waterfront. He dealt with racism, capitalism, the environment, Pan-Africanism, substance abuse, nuclear power, women's liberation and just plain "silly" little love songs.
"Whitey on the Moon," "Shut Down," "The Bottle," "Angel Dust," “Johannesburg,” and "Your Daddy Loves You" are parts of his catalog.
I have recently completed reading Scott-Heron's memoir, The Last Holiday, which discusses his tour with Stevie Wonder and which helped create a formally recognized observance for Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday. Today Dr. King's January 15th birthday is a national holiday thanks to the efforts of Wonder and Scott-Heron and millions of people in the United States. Scott-Heron was a last minute replacement for Bob Marley and the Wailers. When Marley was diagnosed with cancer, the "Eighth Wonder of the World"—Stevie—hand-picked Scott-Heron to tour with him. I was fortunate to have caught the concert in Montreal as well as an exclusive interview with Wonder. Instead of this coup firming up my relationship with the "Big White Folks" in the corporate media, I was fired. More about that at a later date.
“Scott-Heron's memoir, The Last Holiday, which discusses his tour with Stevie Wonder.”
I covered the event for Al Hamilton's Contrast – "the eyes, ears and voice of the Black community" – and the Toronto Star, "Canada's largest newspaper.” I was able to pull this off because Wonder and his management wanted someone with crossover appeal but who still had ties to the African community. Contrast had a corner on Canada's African community and the Toronto Star gave me a readership from Canada coast-to-coast. It was just what the doctor ordered. At that time, Wonder’s team included an individual named Keith who happened to be from Sierra Leone. It did not hurt that I had done my homework when it came to Africa and Africans. I passed the test that Keith put me through.
Scott-Heron spent his childhood with his Alabama-born grandmother, Lilly Scott, in Jackson, Tennessee. I found this out the hard way on my first encounter with him in 1976 in Toronto, Canada. His bio that was circulated by Arista Records talked about him being the son of a Jamaican professional soccer player, Gil Heron. When I raised this with him he quickly rebuked me. "The Scotts raised me," he responded with his booming bass/baritone voice. I would find out years later that at that moment of our exchange in 1976, he had not yet met his father. Later, he does talk about meeting is father when he was 26 years old on the song "Hello Sunday, Hello Road.”
Gil eventually left Tennessee and his grandmother since by the time Gil reached his teens, his mother, Bobbie Scott, had taken a job in New York City and he joined her there. She was an opera singer who performed with the New York Oratorio Society and the daughter of Bob Scott. Says Scott-Heron, "My grandfather was "Steel Arm Bob”, a pitcher who bested Satchel Paige's barnstorming team 1-0 when they came through Jackson."
Both sides of Scott-Heron's family stressed education. Africans born in the Southern part of the United States, like their counterparts in the Caribbean, were united on this issue. Scott-Heron described his grandmother as a "God-fearing woman with high ideals, strong principles, and most of all, a belief in the power of learning." He went further to explain, "And she scrapped, scrimped, scrambled, scrunched, scrubbed, scratched, scuffled, slaved, and saved until somehow all four of her children had graduated from college with honors." This laid the basis for him to gain entry to New York City's prestigious Fieldston School.
“The one who stood in the vanguard of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa momentarily lost his way.”
Scott-Heron attended Lincoln University, the first and oldest historically Black university in the United States. Kwame Nkrumah, Langston Hughes, Cab Calloway and Thurgood Marshall inspired him to choose Lincoln. And he did make a name for himself there by leading a strike to demand better student health care.
Scott-Heron was in struggle with himself near the end of his life. The one who stood in the vanguard of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa momentarily lost his way. In 2010 he was due to perform in Tel Aviv, but this attracted criticism from Palestinian groups who stated, "Your performance in Israel would be the equivalent to having performed in Sun City during South Africa’s apartheid era... We hope that you will not play apartheid Israel." Fortunately, he heeded the call and cancelled the date.
While he expressed a Love Supreme for his mother and grandmother, he publicly admits in The Last Holiday that his record on the question of other women in his life was less than stellar. Says Scott-Heron, "And it may be that I never get another chance to say this to those children, as well as I know I have never taught them by example so that they can turn to each other for this when they need it. I hope there is no doubt that I loved them and their mothers as best as I could. And if that was inevitably inadequate, I hope it was supplemented by their mothers, who were all better off without me." He had three children, a son Rumal, and two daughters Gia and Che.
Like all human beings Scott-Heron had merits and demerits. I personally always saw him as a tortured genius. Like many who came before him and those who are living today and those who will emerge in the future.
Norman (Otis) Richmond aka Jalali can be heard on Saturday Morning Live every Saturday on http://radioregent.com/ 10am to 1pm and Diasporic Music on Uhuru Radio every other Sunday 2pm to 4pm www.uhururadio.com