Hello everybody, my name is Samuel and as the title suggests I will be writing about authors of poetry, prose, music, essays, and novels who proved crucial to cultural and political revolution. I’m gonna walk a fine line between expressing authors’ viewpoints without affirming them, but rather provide a historical breakdown on their influence on the world around them. Without further ado:
Gil Scott-Heron was perhaps the most influential voice of The Last Poets; a supergroup of Black poets who organized in the late 1960s. Though an honorary member, Scott-Heron blended elements of blues, jazz, and funk in his music and combined melodies with politically charged poems to create the earliest instances of what would come to be known as Hip-Hop.
He was born in Chicago but was moved to Tennessee to live with his grandmother after his parents separated early in his childhood. After his grandmother passed he moved to the Bronx to live with his mother, he was twelve at the time. Gil Scott-Heron describes his first-hand account in his pieces “On Coming From a Broken Home” parts 1 and 2. Shortly after moving to the Bronx, he won a full scholarship to The Fieldston School, an Ivy league preparatory school, where he was one of three Black students. He later attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, eventually becoming among their most notable alumni alongside Langston Hughes, one of Heron’s biggest inspirations. In 1970 he published his first novel The Vulture, a thriller murder mystery.
Having experienced the harshness of a Jim Crow America while in Tennessee to explosions of cultural celebration in Chelsea NYC, Gil Scott-Heron started reading his poetry to audiences of students, artists, and the unapologetically proud. Around this time his music career gained some real traction with the release of his second album, Pieces Of A Man. Often thought of as his Magnum Opus, Heron combined elements of blues, jazz, funk, and soul with his poetry to solidify the uniqueness of his voice and his place as a liberator in a rapidly changing America.
The album opens with these lines from “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
“You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials, because
The revolution will not be televised.”
Spoken over jazz instruments and a fast beat, these lines are the very first lines of rap as we know it today. To put it simply: without this song and without Gil Scott-Heron, groups such as NWA, Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, and other early Hip-Hop stars like Big L, Tupac Shakur, and Kurtis Blow would have had a much harder time developing their own sound. This isn’t to say that this entire genre wouldn’t have existed without Heron, but the boundaries he was pushing from the very beginning paved the way for these artists.
Perhaps the most important issue he pushed was self-education and he did so in this album. To paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron himself; “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was a call to those around him to educate themselves on heavier hitting topics, nobody learns their political stances or their passions by watching the television. Further, it was a call to get involved in your community and to spread your own words, thoughts, and ideas. Heron and so many others knew that the real change would never be broadcast from fear of the social elite, so communal reliance and art would be the only mediums to truly spread innovative ideas. Even further Heron pushes the importance of the changing world; you can try to ignore it, but the cultural and political revolution will affect everyone, so it’s in your best interest to get involved.
Perhaps his greatest message of unity is his song “You Could Be My Brother”
Gil Scott-Heron’s career did suffer eventually, and like all great heroes, he suffered tragic flaws. His flaw in particular was a lifelong battle with cocaine addiction. While he maintained his entire life this was nothing but a rumor, his family, partners, and friends say otherwise. Perhaps it was fear of his messages’ decline, maybe fear his career would be looked at in shame, perhaps there’s no truth to what his loved ones have said, or perhaps it was fear of admitting he had a problem which kept him from seeking help. In any case, there’s been no hard truth to rely on since his death in 2011. What we do know is that he remained vigilant in his art. Right before his death, he released an album entitled “I’m New Here” which he worked on during a 16-year absence from the music world. To any new listener to his work, this is the album to start with. It serves as a detailed history of his life as well as an ode to the struggling artist. In the album, there are covers of some of his greater influences such as Robert Johnston’s “Me And The Devil Blues” and Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You” (Heron’s cover was sampled for Drake’s 2011 “Take Care” featuring Rihanna). This final album released before his death is definitely the most melancholic, especially knowing it was received with minimal critical acclaim; but, certain pieces like “NY is Killing Me” and “Is That Jazz” remain on my daily playlist. I can’t remember the last time I went a day without listening to the masterpiece that is his cover of Bill Callahan’s song “I’m New Here” which serves as the title for the album.
It speaks volumes, and I cannot express that these words are still echoing 50 years later, just thinking of 50 years passing is enough to send anyone into an existential crisis, but we hear these same words spoken today. It seems the world will never stop changing but in these times we have more than just television to give us false senses of education and confidence, I argue we need artists like Heron now more than ever. Distraction is such an easy route to come by these days, but worse than that, false senses of security plague us every day. Now I’m not saying anyone is blind to their surroundings, but it’s far easier now to ignore them. How many people base their views on something they saw on the screen or some so-called “intellectual” on any number of podcasts. Gil Scott-Heron’s message should resonate with us every day of our lives; look at the bigger picture, ask the hard questions, and help those you can. Arguably, Heron’s biggest call for individual education outside of his music is his poem “His story.”
I know this is an ever so brief glance at one of the most influential artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, but to stand with his message, I urge you to read and listen to Gil Scott-Heron on your own time and draw your own conclusions on his messages and influence. Even if you deny his messages, his artistry and importance to music cannot be argued.
-Samuel McFerron, Blog Editor
Sam McFerron – Blog Editor, Asst. Prose & Asst. Poetry Editor: Sam is a Sophomore at Lewis University. They are an English Major with a concentration in literature and hopes to procure a minor in Philosophy. They aspire to become a professor of literature and spend most of their free time reading and writing music. They hope to improve upon their writing skills as well as their literary analysis skills during their time here at Lewis and are seeking publication within this time frame. Some authors they recommend are David Foster Wallace, Milan Kundera, William S. Burroughs, and Kate Chopin.