What does it take to be a griot? According to the dictionary, griots are a 'member of a hereditary caste among the peoples of western Africa whose function is to keep an oral history of the tribe or village and to entertain with stories, poems, songs, dances, etc.' Gil Scott-Heron
did not grow up in West Africa so he wasn't born a griot caste member like Youssou N'Dour
was. But there is another word that has been used to describe what griots do, that word is bard. Maybe Ron Carter
heard echoes of the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon when he described GSH's voice as 'Shakespearean.' Whatever word we use-griot, bard, bluesologist, rapper, jazzman-GSH's love and mastery of words and music puts him in the pantheon of American art. His poetry, novels and song lyrics are the products of a soulful genius.
Born in Chicago
on April Fool's day 1949 (a birthdate that made him smile), Gil Scott-Heron's mother was a librarian and an opera singer for the Oratorio Society of New York, his dad was The Black Arrowa Jamaican soccer-footballer, the first Black man to play for Celtic in Glasgow, Scotland. He's one of the most influential figures in Bronx history, according to Brooklyn-based artist Rico Gaston's glass mosaics at the 167th Street subway station. Beacons
, the title of the mural, features Tito Puente
, Celia Cruz
, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Reggie Jackson, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and an answer to this article's initial interrogatory. Gil Scott-Heron's song lyrics alone make him an African-American griot whose Jamaican roots and friendship with Bob Marley
should be known to all.
He attended private school. The Fieldston School in the Bronx gave him a scholarship because of his writing ability. He went to Lincoln University outside of Philadelphia
because of his affinity for the writings of another graduateLangston Hughes. The self-labeled 'bluesologist' and spoken-word jazz poet, GSH wasn't fond of being called the "godfather of rap." Before his death in 2011 he said that rap was... "something that's aimed at the kids." He listened to it, but it was not his favorite music. In "Message to the Messengers," released in 1994 on Spirits
, he wrote this lyric"we got respect for young rappers and the way they're freewayin' but if you're gonna be teachin' folks things, make sure you know what you're saying."
Novels & Lyrics
In spite of his fondness for critical thinking and a mordant sense of humor, GSH's influence has been widespread and profound in a country where critical thinking and humor are lost arts. So many of his songs"Rivers of My Fathers," "Lady Day and John Coltrane," "H20Gate Blues," "Winter in America," "B-Movie," "The Bottle," "New York is Killing Me," etc.speak a sociopolitical truth that may be more true now than when he wrote them. Like so many other truth-tellers there was no shower of gold from the commercial mainstream, but again like so many others, his art, not money, tells a never-ending story. He donated "the revolution will not be televised," 'say what's the word? Johannesburg," "we almost lost Detroit," "the government you have elected is inoperative" to our everyday language. Last Poets
formed on Malcolm X's birthday in Harlem in the late 1960's. They took their name from Keorapetse Kgositsile (aka Bra Willie), South Africa's future poet laureate, who believed we were in the last era of poetry before it was taken over by guns. GSH asked Abiodun Oyewole
after a Lincoln University concert if he could start a group like theirsan example of how he was raised; respect those you admire. GSH returned to his Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan taking a leave of absence from Lincoln to finish The Vulture
, a murder mystery published to positive reviews in 1970 at 21. The Nigger Factory
was published two years later and has gained literary praise over the years for its depiction of the hypocrisy of American higher education.
Although he never received an undergraduate degree, GSH was admitted to the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and earned an M.A. in creative writing. He taught literature and creative writing at Federal City College in Washington, D.C.. After recording the spoken word Small Talk at 125th and Lenox
he and Brian Jackson
a fellow student at Lincoln, another devotee of Langston Hughes-created Pieces of a Man
produced by Bob Thiele at Flying Dutchman Records. Both of those recordings contain "The Revolution Will Not be Televised." Listening to Small Talk
, recorded in front of a small audience seated on folding chairs at the studio, we can hear why Ron Carter was reminded of a Shakespearean actor.
The refrain of GSH's "Whitey on the Moon" came from his mother long before Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson went for a space ride in 2021. If there is a better musical/lyrical statement of the socioeconomic inequities between white and black America than this song it needs an audience. "H2OGate Blues" was created before Richard Nixon resignedGSH's musical foreshadowing of where the USA government was headed. Many still think we are headed to autocracy.
Reading his posthumous genre-bending memoir The Last Holiday
is an exercise in truth-telling. Here is some of what GSH had to say...
"I hope this book will remind you that you can succeed, that help can arrive from unexpected quarters at times that are crucial. I believe in 'the Spirits.' ...I am not and do not have a personal church to promote. I believe, however, to paraphrase Duke Ellington, that at almost every corner of my life there has been someone or something there to show me the way."
The book's title refers to the Hotter than July tour Stevie Wonder
and he did to get Martin Luther King's birthday celebrated in the USA. He honored those who earned his respect and gives the credit to Stevie for making MLK day a national holiday.
Always the truth-teller, Scott-Heron recounts the night John Lennon
was killed during the tour. Stevie Wonder decided not to mention the death until the end of the concert given how much effect it would have on the audience. At 11;30pm he honored John Lennon for 15 minutes with heartfelt praise. The Boston-based reviewer of the concert left at 11pm to meet a deadline and ignorantly criticized Stevie for being racist in his review the next day. Lucky for his readers GSH told us the truth. Sad to say in this case, fake news spread in Boston long before there was Internet.
GSH was not a man to suffer fools and looked himself in the eye. He recognized and apologized to his loved ones for not always being what they needed him to be in his memoir. If there is anything that should stay with us after seeing what HIV and drugs can do it is the image of Gil Scott-Heron in his later life. The video on YouTube created by XL Recording remembering the 10th anniversary of I'm New Here
is a fitting and honest tribute.
A Prayer to the Spirits
Art gives a voice to every type of POV. It is long past the moment to lament the lack of a voice like Gil Scott-Heron's in a time when dystopia is more descriptive of America's dream than democracy. GSH left us in 2011. Wherever his Spirit may be now there's little to be gained by wondering if he saw where we were headed. He always believed he and we could come back from adversity.
In writing this piece something was learned. What has been said and written about Gil Scott-Heron is mistaken to a degree. The mistake? Not saying or writing enough in praise of the heart and soul of a great American artist.
His grandmother taught him that if we could help someone why wouldn't we. Brother Gil, if the revolution will not be televised, how about streaming it commercial-free?
House of Words Podcast Episode 15 Small Talk at 125th & Lenox
-Cristo M. Sanchez & Jason Nemor Harden (narrator), The Last Holiday
-Gil Scott-Heron, Grove Atlantic Press, Gil Scott-Heron recordings.