Gil Scott-Heron approached death several times during his life.
It’s just a shame that the time it actually did do him in was during a period of creative growth and renewed activity.
Who’s the Godfather of Rap music?
I’m not going to get into a long-winded debate of why or why he wasn’t; I just want to tell a story that’s the antithesis of everything Gil Scott-Heron spoke about.
It’s a story about a clueless white dude moving in on black culture, which is pretty much what us crackers did with rap music anyway.
Let me back up to the night when Scott-Heron was on Saturday Night Live doing “Johannesburg.” I’m not going to suggest that I liked what I saw, but I will admit that this was the first time I’d ever heard of Gil Scott-Heron and I was a bit intrigued.
It would have been a Public Enemy album where I’d heard about him next, during one of their landmark releases where everyone tried to identify what samples they used afterwards. Those records were like encyclopedias, prompting fanatics to seek out the source material.
Gil Scott-Heron was right there on page one.
There would be no Public Enemy without Gil Scott-Heron, as I later discovered, and it’s at that point when I started to hear things like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” that I began to consider that his influence was much bigger than just a sample off some Public Enemy record.
From him, and from others as well, I began to formula a clear understanding of the racism that was apparent in my own family.
My grandfather was from Alabama. One of sixteen children. Every year there’s a family gathering in the stifling heat of July where everyone comes in from all parts of the country. I went once when I was about 10 years old.
On one day, we were driving around the back roads of the Alabama countryside looking for what would have been my great-grandparents’ farmstead. I was in the backseat with my granddad and a bunch of relatives that I didn’t know. As we traveled, they pointed out familiar landmarks to them. I quietly listened, overwhelmed by all of the information that I’d surely forget on the plane ride home.
As we got closer, some of the people in the car pointed out a farmhouse that was owned by someone and some point in time. At the time, however, one of the people in the car mentioned that the house was now owned by “a bunch of them niggers.”
Even that age, that word made me feel uncomfortable. We didn’t talk that way in my house. And as white bread as my hometown was, we did have a few people of color in my classroom and we didn’t talk in that manner there either.
I’m not naïve to the fact that I’m sure people encountered racism in my town more than I’d care to admit, but back then everybody got hit during dodgeball, anyone could share in the crayons, and everyone was called by their given names-not by some derogatory slur.
I wanted to go home after hearing that. I didn’t feel like being in a car full of racists that, oh, just happened to be related to me.
And I looked at my grandfather differently too.
He was no longer this southern gentleman who liked to bullshit with everyone. Instead, he became this racist southern caricature, spoiling my ideal notion of what my family history was supposed to be.
As I got older, I began to ask more questions about why my southern side of the family was raised with such disdain towards their black neighbors. There’s no answer to that, of course, but my opinion of my grandfather had changed forever. I also learned that after all the years of being married to him, my grandmother shared a lot of his skewed view of race.
I was able to figure out my grandmother’s racism a lot more than my grandfather. She talked about it. My grandfather didn’t. Come to think about it, my grandfather didn’t talk much to anyone, except the people that were on his potato chip route at work.
“Nuts to you from Guy’s!” read his delivery van.
My grandmother was a strangely neurotic stay-at-home mom who had an opinion of everything, but would seldom voice her opinion in public because she wasn’t the most social of creatures. During World War II she worked in Denver-that’s where she eventually met my grandfather at a USO dance-but it seemed that she left her independence behind the moment she married my grandfather and began having children.
Richard Pryor was my favorite comedian during the 70’s-admittedly a little too risqué for a boy of my age-and I remember telling her how funny Silver Streak was. My grandmother immediately voiced how “awful” he was and, later on when he got sick, she told me that he “deserved” his illness.
It was almost the same story with Mohammed Ali, so it was becoming obvious that my grandmother had real issues with African Americans who possessed any amount of pride and independence.
Strangely though, I do remember her liking Patti LaBelle.
She would have hated Gil Scott-Heron.
I began to take an interest in black culture, thanks to those Public Enemy records. I began to learn more about Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and yes, Gil Scott-Heron, in an obvious rebellion towards my father’s side of the family and their inherent racism. To this day, I still associate more towards my Swedish ancestors than my southern ones and I haven’t been to that aforementioned family reunion since 1977, despite numerous attempts at trying to get me to attend.
In Iowa City, Iowa, there’s a section in the downtown area called “The Ped(estrian) Mall” and within that is a second-floor area of start-up retail stores called “The Hall Mall.” It’s mainly stores like comics, head shops, and whatever whim a hippie with a dream has for a retail start-up.
As you may imagine, stores come and go in the Hall Mall, and I haven’t been there in years. In fact, the last time I was there was when I was in the middle of my “black culture appreciation” period.
Within the Hall Mall was a new store directly next to the hippie clothing joint. I didn’t pay attention to the hand-written store sign when I went in to browse, but I was immediately smitten with one item in particular: a long sleeve black shirt with a collage of Malcolm X.
At the time, I was completely oblivious at how utterly ridiculous this entire scene was: a white Midwestern man contemplating a shirt celebrating a black activist in a store designed for and started by African-Americans.
Ignoring the very notion of a Malcolm X t-shirt and the issues that it presents, I want to focus on the sheer audacity of my purchase. It wasn’t until later that I completely understood the ridiculousness of the event. I even added a wonderful wooden necklace with bright African colors to my purchase before asking, “Do you take credit cards?”
The wonderfully tolerant sales clerk offered to take my credit card to another hippie store to run it through their machine, an arrangement that I’m not entirely sure how they worked out between them. The clerk did indicate that the store she befriended wasn’t too thrilled with her quick thinking, but all I cared about was getting my purchase home so that I could wear my solidarity with African-American culture proudly in front of my white friends.
It wasn’t too long before I understood that my purchase was completely wrong and that I looked ridiculous wearing it. I feel the need to mention that this was before Spike Lee’s movie Malcolm X in a feeble attempt to restore some sense of legitimacy to my purchase.
There’s no excuse, obviously, but I can tell you that the shirt did manage to provide a moment of rebellion when I wore it in front of my grandmother one year during Christmas. I wanted to show them how the future generation of our family wouldn’t be stymied by silly racist beliefs and be fearful of free-thinking independents who challenge society’s norms.
I’m pretty sure that my message wasn’t received by my grandparents, which of course, makes the entire shirt purchase a continued source of embarrassment. I say “continued” because, yes, I still have that shirt. I remains in decent shape after two decades, mainly because I probably wore it less than a dozen times and it’s spent most of its existence in a storage bag next to old R.E.M. tour shirts and a t-shirt of Kramer from Seinfeld, which is pretty ironic given Michael Richard’s race-baiting “comedy” act if you think about it.
But what’s even more ironic is how this story wouldn’t have been possible without Gil Scott-Heron. If not for his groundbreaking work that help forge the building blocks of rap music, we probably wouldn’t have had a band like Public Enemy changing the public perceptions of African Americans and other aspects of black culture.
It may not have been intended for people like me-a white, Midwestern young man with no real perception of black or urban culture to begin with-but it certainly transcended race and influenced everyone.
Because the best way to curtail and end racism itself is to have a better understanding of the variety of cultures and people who inhabit this country. And without him, I may have bought into the same weak-minded beliefs that my relatives attached themselves to.
So Godspeed, Gil Scott-Heron. The revolution wasn’t necessarily televised, but it ended up being broadcasted loud and clear throughout speakers and headphones across the country.