Gil Scott-Heron obit: listen to his sad, sharp vision of race and consumerism.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
May 31 2011 6:06 PM

America the Not-So-Beautiful

Gil Scott-Heron's sad, sharp vision of race and consumerism.

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It was an unflinching message, and it wasn't about to make Gil Scott-Heron a pop star, even in a golden age of black protest pop—the period that gave us What's Going On and "We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue" and "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)." His music was more radical than Marvin Gaye's, Curtis Mayfield's, and even James Brown's, more tough-minded and unforgiving; there was no trace of gospel generosity or the ecumenical spirit of black church. But the flipside of Scott-Heron's scorn for white America was love for black America. Listening to Scott-Heron's '70s records, from "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" to "Lady Day and John Coltrane" to the life-on-tour vignette "Hello Sunday, Hello Road," you can hear the ferment of bohemian black life in the 1970s—the utopian vibe of the Black Arts movement, the sense that a new, better, world was being created, in spite and because of a system designed to destroy it.

Scott-Heron kept making records into the early 1980s, including some of the funniest musical attacks ever leveled at Ronald Reagan. But he succumbed to drug addiction and spent the better part of his last decades in the grip of a crack habit. The perils of drugs and alcohol had long been one of Scott-Heron's biggest themes: "The Bottle" (1974) might be the finest—certainly the grooviest—song about the ruinous effect of addiction on black lives. It sounded like reportage; it turned out to be autobiography.

It's painful to contemplate Scott-Heron's decline, to listen back to songs like "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" (1971), which sounds an awful lot like the scenes described by Alec Wilkinson in his 2010 New Yorker profile of Scott-Heron. The past few days, I've been listening to other, less harrowing Scott-Heron songs. One of my favorites is "A Song for Bobby Smith," a ballad crooned over cocktail jazz tinkling on a Fender Rhodes keyboard. The song is dedicated to a four year-old boy, who Scott-Heron calls a "young warrior" in the song's spoken intro. It's a lullaby that doubles as a call-to-arms:

Ain't you been there?
Ain't you going?
Can't you taste your ideas growing?
We are soldiers
Soldiers of a new day
Can't you see it?
Can't you feel it in your heart?

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This is Gil Scott-Heron at his gentlest and loveliest, but it's also typical Scott-Heron creation—the blues tinges his vocal, jazz filters through the chord changes, and the lyric catches the struggle, and the glory, of African-American life. Scott-Heron's own life ended sadly, and way too soon. It's preferable to remember him not as the ravaged soul of his later years but as the singer of "A Song for Bobby Smith": a young man—wise-beyond-his-years, sad and sharp and full of stubborn hope—welcoming a child into a beautiful, fallen world.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

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