America the Not-So-Beautiful
Gil Scott-Heron's sad, sharp vision of race and consumerism.
Gil Scott-Heron, who died this past Friday at age 62, was an old soul even when he was a young man. That's the impression his music gave, in any case. On his debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, released in 1970 when Scott-Heron was just 21, he spoke with the voice of authority—a bright, hard, lacerating voice, full of irony, and clear-eyed about hypocrisy wherever he saw it, whether in the ranks of his fellow black nationalists or in the Nixon White House.
The album opened with his most famous recording, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a string of one-liners, recited over percolating percussion, that promised a day of racial reckoning while sending-up the inanity of TV advertising and consumer culture. ("The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions," Scott-Heron intoned. "The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.") That album also included "Whitey on the Moon," which sets the Apollo 11 lunar landing against the squalor and despair of ghetto life. It's as furious an indictment of injustice as you'll ever hear, but it works because of its wit:
A rat done bit my sister Nell
With Whitey on the moon
Her face and arms began to swell
And Whitey's on the moon
I can't pay no doctor's bill
But Whitey's on the moon
Ten years now I'll be paying still
While Whitey's on the moon
Scott-Heron is being eulogized as the "Godfather of Rap," a title he disavowed. (He preferred to call himself a "bluesologist.") In fact, Scott-Heron, along with the The Last Poets, The Watts Prophets, and other spoken-word firebrands of the late '60s and early '70s, did pave the way for hip-hop, or for a certain strain of it: the political/Afro-centric rap that briefly flourished two decades later, reaching an apotheosis with Public Enemy. But for better or—mostly—worse, Scott-Heron's influence can really be detected in the performance poetry of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and the like. He's the Godfather of the Poetry Slam.
While you hear Scott-Heron's cadences anytime a slam poet takes the stage on open-mike night, his gifts extended far beyond the form he helped create. He had a keen eye for the telling detail and a vision broad enough to take in the big picture. "Winter in America" (1974), the title track from Scott-Heron's best album, gives the grand pastoral poetry of "America the Beautiful" a bitter twist, pulling the camera way back to take in the violence of three centuries of history:
From the Indians who welcomed the Pilgrims
To the buffalo who once ruled the plains
Like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds
Looking for the rain
Looking for the rain
That song, a ballad with a doleful brass arrangement, is a reminder that it's wrong to call Scott-Heron a poet and leave it at that. He was songwriter. Beginning with his second album, Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron began singing with full musical accompaniment. He had a natural flair for melody, and a wobbly but inviting singing voice. Collaborating with the multi-instrumentalist Brian Jackson, he put out seven albums from 1971 to 1977. The music encompassed jazz, funk, soul, and R&B; the lyrics brooded over inner city blight, the dangers of nuclear power, and Watergate in scornful prophetic tones. ("Just how blind will America be?" he thundered in "H20gate Blues.") Beneath the slogans and jokes, Scott-Heron's protest songs had a consistent complaint: The world is going to hell, and mainstream America is out to lunch. Whitey's on the moon.
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Photograph of Gil Scott-Heron by Anna Webber/Getty Images.