Get To Know: In Honor of Gil Scott Heron

I wrote this paper while I was enrolled as an undergrad at San Diego State University. I did not edit this in any way. I felt compelled to post this because people will allow Gil Scott’s death to go uncelebrated, and unrecognized. I hope they won’t. I won’t because his death diminshes my creative world, but in his own words of Guan Guanco, we are born to discover ourselves and in doing so we have our rebirth and regeneration. Gil Scott is now among the ancestors and within all of us we carry his spirit and by sharing we keep him alive. This is long so come back to it if you have to. Chris B.
The Words of a Modern-Day Jali
(Gil Scott-Heron’s Influences, Social Commentary and his Affect on the Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Community)
I stood with the others along the shimmering coast as waves pushed loose sand from troughs and carried rocks onto the shore. We had awaited the call of the Atumpan for several days waited for the master drummer to tell of us any impending danger. Each day seemed longer than before. Our chieftain had informed us that we did not have the weapons to match the gunpowder that the British men carried. To calm us he asked everyone to listen to the sound of the talking drum. After listening he then told us that this was our advantage. I failed to understand. The Atumpan gives us notice, we see the enemy through the words of the drum, he explained. After waiting for close to five days for the White men to arrive the warriors began to finish the tasks of moving baskets of yams too heavy for the women and children to carry.
It was early, quiet. The sun made long shadows of trees on the shore. The waves echoed the warning from the Atumpan that the White men had returned and would be arriving with guns and various weapons, I felt my chest tighten. The women and children ran to safety. I prepared along with the others for what was about to occur. The speed of the drumming carried over the water faster, with more urgency. I felt fear. I asked my chieftain if the drums were wrong. In his heavy raspy words he informed me that the drums were never wrong. We all moved from the shore in accordance with the call from Atsimewu and prepared for battle. Atsimewu sounded They are here, they are here.

In our past, in every African society there were people known as Dagomba. Dagomba was a griot and a master drummer who knew, completely, the past and the present history of his people. This tradition of historic storytelling presented by elders such as a Dagomba, has been an integral part of African-American music and history. In particular this form of storytelling influenced an artform which ‘began’ in the 1970’s, Hip-Hop.
Hip-Hop, a form of music from the inner city, began as party music. A DJ would play songs and rap, or talk, over the instrumental parts of records, in order to keep the crowd moving during the fade in and fade out of a record. As people began to listen more and more to what the DJ would say, the DJ’s rap became more sophisticated and the lyrics, storytelling, became more focused. The lyrics reported on the events taking place in neighborhoods and in society.
Similar to the Dagomba, and the playing of the Atumpan, Hip-Hop consisted of spoken words in conjunction with a heavy drumbeat. The words of the deejay/ emcee began to give references and warnings of societal problems affecting African-Americans. For instance, Grandmaster Flash wrote a song titled, White Lines: Don’t Do It. This was a reference to the cocaine addiction problem that exploded in New York and other parts of the country. The line, “Don’t Do It,” is an obvious precursor to the very flawed, “Just Say No,” campaign pushed forth by Nancy Reagan and the government years later.
Hip Hop, as documented by Nelson George, began in New York with a DJ whose stage name was Kool Herc. However, just as the lineage of jazz and blues is rooted in the rhythms of African music, so is Hip-Hop. But, as the following information will detail, there was a more immediate precursor, a founder, and a prophet for the culture of Hip-Hop, not unlike the griot. This creator and torchbearer of social-consciousness storytelling began by shouting to the world that, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (Heron 1), and he never looked back. His messages of hope, desperation, and family focused on the concept of ‘Us’ instead of ‘I’. Heron was quoted as saying, “Black Americans do a lot of singing about ‘I’…We were singing ‘us’ songs…because we didn’t love ourselves at the time” (Saunders pg. 2).
In the turn of a phrase he had the biting wit of a confident satirist who condemned the government for pushing human rights from the public spectrum. While others declined to comment on society in their art, his views can be found in all of his music and writings.
Gil Scott-Heron arrived on the music scene in 1970 with music that was thought provoking and representative of the times. In the following pages, a picture will be painted that will cover the landscape of Gil Scott Heron’s influences, his passion for the written word, his admiration of the beauty of music created from the African culture and how he has influenced the Hip-Hop movement.
Throughout African-American history our music symbolized the struggles of our past, the happiness in our lives and the situations that created the happiness or sadness. Sorrow songs, the field songs, cries, hollers and hymns named by W.E.B. DuBois were sung during the time when African-Americans were enslaved. The songs were often coded messages that gave slaves directions of escape and a means of communication with others in the field. This ability to use music as a tool for the dissemination of information continued through the works of Gil Scott-Heron.
Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago, April 1, 1949 (Contemporary pg. 189), at a time when civil rights struggles were reaching a new level of importance in African-American politics. This racial and confrontational backdrop would become fodder for the music of Gil Scott. The fifties and sixties introduced leaders and groups who had the experience, motivation and ability to organize Blacks and fight segregation, unlike any other time. It was this racially charged era that bore poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Stanley Crouch and Angela Davis (SonicNet pg. 2). These poets came along at a time when the non-violent ideas of Dr. King had been obliterated by the bullet fired in Memphis, TN. These poets along with the heavy influence of The Last Poets set the tone for Gil Scott’s arrival.
Like all Blacks, as a child, Heron had no choice in understanding, accepting and overcoming racism. He learned at an early age how vicious the sting of prejudice comments could be. As a child he lived with his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee where he, “[H]ad the nerve to be one of three Black kids who integrated a Jackson elementary school” (Maycock pg. 1). As traumatizing a situation as this was, it is reasonable to understand why in this southern state he was, “[U]nable to tolerate the abuse ladled out by his White schoolmates” (Bourgoin pg. 189). Many African- Americans believed that salvation could be found in cities of the north. Heron’s grandmother, who continued to fight for Civil Rights, believed this. She sent him to live with his mother in the Bronx, New York, after she realized his inability to cope with the constant abuse by his White peers (pg. 189).
However, the melting pot of diversity that awaited Gil Scott, was not a haven that kept him from segregation and racism. New York was exemplary of the broad spectrum of cultural frustration that existed in America. New York also made available to Heron the different and numerous forms of African-American culture. Although he was not immediately attracted to music, his attraction to writing became stronger.
Heron began writing at an early age, “[H]e was writing detective stories by the time he was in fifth grade” (Clark pg. 307). Heron’s early writings were a precursor to the diverse outspoken topics that became a standard for him.
His ability to capture his thoughts and place them onto paper was a definite sign of the inherent talent of a young Black man who would carry the torch of storytelling. His storytelling would be in correlation with the way Black society was represented, or misrepresented. Just as the Jali, or griot, was educated from birth to know his history, Scott was nurtured and continued to write into his formative high school years. In one of New York’s more prestigious schools, “Fieldston School in the Bronx, he began to absorb modern black poetry by men like Langston Hughes” (Clark Jr. pg. 307). Absorbing the aura of one of African-America’s cultural and spiritual meccas, Harlem, Gil Scott found himself so attracted to the work of Langston Hughes that he decided to continue his education at Langston Hughes’ alma mater, Lincoln University in rural Pennsylvania (Clark Jr. pg. 308). As a student at Lincoln he was awarded the, “Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award in 1968” (pg. 308).
The time he spent at Lincoln was the springboard for his journey into music, but his writing was the vehicle he would use to maneuver into the musical realm. Heron’s poetry, although heavily influenced by the Harlem renaissance poets, was similar to the spoken word work of the Last Poets, in it’s brash, in your face presentation. One of his influences occurred through contact with Gylan Kain, a member of the Last Poets, who was on the faculty at Lincoln University for a short time (pg. 308).
Heron, during his time at Lincoln accomplished things that are amazing considering he worked, attended school full time and at times was a member of the university basketball team. He completed two novels. The first book was The Vulture, which he completed at the age of nineteen. The Vulture was a novel that presented the problem of drugs and gangs in American society. The plot of Heron’s book continues to be addressed in movies of the Hip-Hop era such as, Boyz in The Hood and New Jack City. His second novel, The Nigger Factory, was a story partially based on a student strike Heron led as a student at Lincoln University. The book dealt with, “[P]olitical unrest and….the history of campus discord” (Bourgoin pg. 189), this book could have likely been the foundation for another movie of the Hip-Hop era, Higher Learning.
Both of his novels have the feel of hopelessness and desperation. It wasn’t until his second book; that his personal growth would give hints of a slight change in his ideas about the oppressive state of America. That book was a collection of poetry, which was to become the basis for his first recording, Small Talk at 125th & Lenox.
“The poems in Small Talk fall into two types: the free verse street rap, and the shorter rhymed poems…close to the blues in… folksy tones” (Clark Jr. pg. 309). Heron’s constant desire to become a better writer led him to use colloquial tones, which gave a familiarity to his writing. The rhythm his words and speech carried were similar, of course, to his muse Langston Hughes. For example, this is a section of a poem by Hughes named I, Too:
…. I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
But I laugh/ And eat well/ And grow strong.
Tomorrow…Nobody’ll dare
Say to me, “Eat in the kitchen.” (Sherman pg. 74)
Although Heron’s earlier writings all dealt with topics that lacked the usual ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ he did become more optimistic about the possible changes in American society. The words in Small Talk were still harsh and straight to the point, but his inspiration becomes evident in his poem, Enough:
There is
no promised land! There is only
the promise! …..
look over your shoulder motherfucker
I AM COMING! (pg. 309)
These volatile words, as angry as they seem, stated that we could make a change once we realized that the ‘Promised Land’ was what we made it to be. Similar to Hughes’ I, Too the message of Enough is the same, if you continue to ignore me I will surpass you and find my own way in this world. Unlike the desperate nature and outcome of Heron’s two books, in Small Talk he began to tackle the problems of African-American neighborhoods with maturity. The hopeless ideas had been replaced with his notion that we had to make our Promised Land by working and challenging the norms of the greater society. The words in the poem, Enough resounds throughout positive messages found in Hip-Hop recordings such as Public Enemy’s, “It takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” Conscious songs like Arrested Developments’, “Raining Revolution,” almost every thing that Tupac attempted to accomplish and the passion of every record by Common also reflects Heron’s transmission.
As was mentioned earlier, Heron’s book of poetry was the catalyst for his mix into the music business, “[A]ged 21 in 1970, Record producer Bob Thiele recorded a first album…the same…as the poetry book…to conga beats and percussion” (Maycock pg. 2).
Being reborn and baptized into another artform at such an early age is in itself a fantastic accomplishment, but this recording was only the beginning. His articulation of what he was doing, singing poetry over jazz and blues music was given the name ‘Bluesology’. This term he described in terms similar to what people stated about the rhythms of African music, the sound is a structured feeling,
What bluesology is supposed to say is how it feels. [It’s] not melodic, exotic or erotic; it ain’t none of those things. It’s that they all come together and relate what it feels like. I play what it feels like (Bourgoin pg.191).
Soon his music overtook his writing and decreased the attention that was given to his books. But this was not of any concern to him, his sole intent as he stated was to, “[R]ecognize the “spirits” of [B]lack ancestors and the history of the struggle…to share ‘gifts” (Bourgoin pg.191). With this first album of poetry the ground had been set to take his outspoken expression to a new level. His outlet would allow him the opportunity to reach millions, and the songs would lay the groundwork for, “[C]onscious rap and poetry slams [and] acid jazz” (Harrington pg. 1).
Small Talk was recorded on the Flying Dutchman record label. This label had set a number of poets’ and ‘political agitators’ works to music, such as the aforementioned Angela Davis. Heron recorded for Dutchman records from 1970- 1974 (Bourgoin pg. 190). The recordings are a collaboration with a fellow Lincoln University friend, and co-founder of their “Midnight Band,” Brian Jackson. Others in the band included, “[B]assist Ron Carter and flutist Hubert Laws” (Saunders pg. 2). While Jackson was the musical talent of the two, Heron wrote the lyrics and also composed a number of songs. During his stint on Dutchman he recorded three albums with songs titled, Whitey on the Moon, “[A] satirical look at American socio-economic values” (Bourgoin pg. 190), Lady Day and Coltrane, and A Sign of the Ages (Heron). Each song complemented his growth. They either recognized African-American heritage, or dealt with society issues. He also created a piece which many consider the first Hip-Hop recording, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Just as he did early in his college career, Heron was burning the candle at both ends. He completed his degree in English, creative writing, and went on to finish his master’s degree, all while he continued to perform and make new music (Bordowitz pg. 2).
He began teaching creative writing at Federal City College in Washington D.C. while pursuing his artistic expression, but he stopped, “I didn’t think I was doing a good enough job as a teacher and that’s what I was there for” (pg. 2). Heron walked away from teaching and from the Flying Dutchman to become the first artist signed to Arista Records in 1975 (Saunders pg. 2). But before he was signed to Arista, he recorded an album that would bring him to the attention of Arista’s label owner Clive Davis. The name of the album was Winter in America. The song which gained the attention of Davis was titled, The Bottle, “[A] powerful single lamenting the mind-numbing influence of alcohol in the [B]lack community” (Saunders pg. 2). Winter in America, was a return to the roots. The album featured Heron, Jackson, Danny Bowens and Bob Adams, who both drove up on the last day of recording to participate in the record’s completion (Heron 2). In Heron’s liner notes, he states what the metaphor of Winter is, “Mrs. Peggy Harris…contributed the collage…[she] continued to urge me to write a song called Winter in America… Winter is a metaphor for the period in our lives through which we are traveling” (Heron 2). The collage to which Heron is referring is a part of the cover on this album. It is a multifaceted picture of Vietnam veterans, slaves toiling as an overseer watches, children playing, and hustler’s hanging and rapping on a street corner. The collage also has a Black couple hugging each other in a park, a statue of Abraham Lincoln, a silhouette of an African-American man in prison and continuous images that can be described in detail. As an understatement this album is a visual and musical work of art.
One of the songs on this record, contains another reference that has been considered a precursor to Hip-Hop, “H2Ogate Blues”, “H20gate Blues is a freestyle ‘70s-style, a partially extemporaneous blues-rap featuring caustic sociopolitical commentary that still stings 25 years later” (Harrington pg. 1). The song title is an obvious reference to Watergate. But it’s the style in which the song was made that ties it more so into Hip-Hop. In the Hip-Hop culture an emcee is respected when he is able to ‘kick a lyric from the top of his dome’, or create a rhyme from inspiration. This ability to freestyle obviously comes from the gospel era, or even the slave songs, where a singer was expected to use heterophony, which is usually performed when one is inspired (Southern pg. 198). H2Ogate was recorded, “[O]ff the top of his head” (Heron 2).
Upon closer inspection of Heron’s music we find that nearly all of his songs, books and styles, have been sampled and reproduced by people of the Hip-Hop/spoken word era. For example, the use of percussion, to set the tone of the record, was one of Heron’s trademarks. In Hip-Hop the emcee raps over break beats created by a deejay on a turntable, or in the case of live Hip-Hop bands such as Stetsosonic (mid eighties) and The Roots (current), the bands use classically trained percussionists. Hip-Hop has transferred urban poetry into music, placing political and social commentary into songs, like the KRS-ONE project record, Self-Destruction, which was inspired by the early eighties anti-apartheid album Sun City. Heron was a part of the Sun City record; he recorded a song with Miles Davis and rapper, Melle Mel (Bourgoin pg.190).
The last album Heron created was titled Spirits. Spirits arrived after Heron’s turbulent eighties, he had parted ways with the Midnight Band and created his new band the Amnesia Express in 1980. He continued to attack politics with songs about the, “Ray-Gun era…[where he] ferociously spoke about the Reagan era’s demolition of the social policies that had been in place for twenty years, and what that did to the black working class” (Maycock pg. 2). Heron had not recorded for over twelve years when he made Spirits. People wondered where he had been. The answer could be found on one of the tracks he recorded for Spirits, “I need to go home. Mama could change it, Daddy could help me…Mama don’t need to see me this way…I can’t go on” (Maycock pg. 2-3). Heron had been fighting a drug addiction problem and this song he had written earlier, Home Is Where The Hatred Is, came to be his, ‘personal testimony’.
With a career that has spanned three decades, Heron’s dedication, to writing and his influence on the Hip-Hop culture has covered miles. From South Africa to South Carolina, the title of his 1975 release, Gil Scott-Heron has maintained the link from the history lessons of Dagomba, to Sorrow songs, to gospel, to the creation of Hip-Hop. Although he won’t say that he is the founder of the Hip-Hop/Spoken Word culture, “I ain’t saying I didn’t invent rapping, I just cannot recall the circumstances” (Bourgoin pg. 191). The evidence is overwhelming in stating that he is truly the grandfather of the Hip-Hop and spoken word artform.
Gil Scott’s Message
Baritone words of revolution, hidden messages of dreams,
Us Black folk done fell asleep. Wake yo ass up and realize,
the fields is still callin, invitin you back.
Yet you gloat and brag
lookin like retired pimps from SuperFly,
thinkin that’s cool, fool, find yo spirit.
Speak of heritage, there is much more to this world
than you believe. Open yo eyes and realize
things ain’t changed that much, brother. (Burns)
Gil Scott did not officially accept the badge that this culture placed upon him. But in his own words on a song from Spirits, he told the messengers of Hip Hop to beware because their words hold power, like the Jali, the misuse of one word can reshape history forever.
End Note: I spoke to Reg E Gaines, who has performed with Heron and is a co-writer of Bring in Da Noize, Bring in Da Funk on Friday, March 10, 2000 at an Open Mic in San Diego. He signed an autograph for me and informed me that Gil Scott is still dealing with his drug problem.

Discover the music of Gil Scott Heron by clicking here and buying work by one of the greatest poets in American Literature.