I wasn't all that surprised to see Gil Scott-Heron's obituary in the newspaper the other day — just look at the accompanying photograph from a 2009 concert in San Francisco and you'll see why.
The smile is wide, the eyes lively... but Scott-Heron's once-handsome face is ravaged, skeletal — the face not of a great song-writer, or novelist, or poet, but of a drug-addict, a felon, a prophet without honor. And he was all those things, though the initial reports of his death scanted the dark side... wisely, since this so-called “Godfather of Rap” was very different from the other musicians who wore out their bodies with drugs, violence, high-living.
Scott-Heron rejected the “godfather” title in part because his music was much more articulate, if no less angry, than those who came in his wake (his work has been sampled by Mos Def and Kanye West, among others); because he wanted to change the world, not dominate it.
I first heard Scott-Heron in the mid-1970s, when a friend played a live version of “The Bottle,” a warning about the dangers of alcohol (“See that sista / Sho' was fine / Til she started drinking wine / from the bottle”). I bought the double album of Scott-Heron playing live with his college pal Brian Jackson, “It's Your World,” and was hooked: the African rhythms, the Latin and jazz horns, were infectious, likely because it was my first encounter with what came to be called “World Music.”
Bright, lively, fast, danceable, hypnotic... the music, that is, because the lyrics were often deadly serious, Scott-Heron having important things to say about justice, sexism, racism, pollution, responsibility, drug use — anything that could be described as “abuse of power.” He gave voice to his inmost thoughts and fears, and to people who couldn't speak for themselves — another characteristic that distinguishes him from most of today's “urban” singers.
Scott-Heron's “godfather” reputation largely derives from “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a biting, baritone, ahead-of-its-time rap — written as a poem, then performed with congas and bongos starting in 1970 — that satirizes the mass media. You can find the lyrics here, and the song, with music, here: one of the last stanzas is below, where Scott-Heron (borrowing from a Hertz car rental commercial), finally says what The Revolution will do.
The revolution will not be right back after a message
About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver's seat.
The Revolution, of course, has yet to happen — and Scott-Heron seemed largely to have given up on it, judging from his descent into crack-cocaine use. He always denied addiction — “I can quit anytime I’m ready,” he told New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson last year — in part, one suspects, because he wrote classic anti-drug songs (“Angel Dust,” “Home is Where the Hatred Is”) that both berated and empathized brethren who failed to “kick it, quit it / kick it, quit it / God did you every try....”
Wilkinson, who interviewed Scott-Heron in his Harlem apartment, described the singer as looking “like bones wearing clothes”... and titled the article, presciently, after one of the last songs he recorded, “New York is Killing Me.” (Scott-Heron fell ill during a recent European tour, though died in a New York city hospital last week, with no cause of death announced.)
Late in the interview process Wilkinson describes Scott-Heron lighting a crack and saying, “10 to 15 minutes of this, I don’t have pain.” He was referring, ostensibly, to some undefined back injury, but also to something larger — a dream failed, a revolution unrealized, because a better world always seems just out of sight.