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.
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?
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 Slate's music critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photograph of Gil Scott-Heron by Anna Webber/Getty Images.