The Poetic Genius and Irony of Gil Scott-Heron
I admired the bold, arrogant style of Gil Scott-Heron and his band. During the mid to late 70s, he brought a whole new flavor to the music scene that stirred not just the body, but also the mind. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was thought-provoking and witty.
I met and fell in love with the syncopated rhythms first—jazzy bluesy sounds with a backbeat that integrated without struggle. These hypnotic sounds invaded my ballet dance training, transporting me beyond simple modern dancing into the world of African dance. Those beats took me home, to Africa-land. So enthused was I, that I soon became part of an African dance troupe—leaping, twirling, and shaking my stuff all over the stages within various halls of learning and on the green grass park-ways where Black folk were celebrating and/or revolting against the ills of the system.
Entrenched within those musical rhythms were words adept at slicing, dicing, exposing lies and folly; one could not help but experience an elevated mental rhythm as well.
At some point, post-Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights marches, came Gil Scott-Heron, picking up the torch for freedoms. An author and music man with a great gift of poetry/spoken word, Gil used his big voice to become the key interpreter of the Black experience in America. A strong cult following helped him carry the banner and share the messages. Influenced by the blues and jazz masters like John Coltrane, Lady Day, Robert Johnson and the likes of poet Langston Hughes and others of the Harlem Renaissance, Gil had discovered the perfect formula for capturing attention and maintaining it. He was bent on moving people beyond futile talk to effective action using poetic genius. My generation had not heard it like this before. He was keeping the focus on dire realities in America, especially its harsh relationship with Black people. He was exposing world issues as well—including being amongst the first to “out” the despicable practice of apartheid in South Africa.
Having formed a trusting, beloved friendship with his rhythm and words, it was an interesting dynamic for me to end up actually working with Gil some years later, when he was signed to Arista Records while I was a publicist there. In fact, Gil was the first artist signed to Arista by Clive Davis. It’s been such a long time ago, but I remember smiling to myself when I first saw him strolling the hallways of our Century City-Los Angeles offices. Watching his thin, lanky 6’4” frame, I could immediately hear the rhythm and words of his music in my head. Behind my smile, was my imagination where a party was going on in my head—but common sense was forcing me to conceal my desire to bust an African dance move, raise my victory fist and repeat the African phrase: Rudiya weuisi, quasei babu, watu weiusi nee washin dah jei! (Forget the phonetic spelling, but it means “Return to Black, because Black is beautiful!”) All kidding aside, though, meeting Gil Scott-Heron for the first time on that beautiful day was pretty surreal. Not everyone gets the opportunity to meet and or work closely with someone they’ve respected and admired from a distance.
His quiet demeanor was probably the most surprising. I guess I expected the roar of a mighty lion as he came through the door; instead, however, he appeared more like a pussycat. A tall, bearded, calm, gentle soul, with an afro that crowned his head like a halo. From the receptionist to the secretaries and publicists, curious eyes were fixed on him, wondering who this guy really was—this non-singer who was bringing a new thing to the label. I can only imagine what he was thinking, strolling through our offices in the early years—pairs of eyes fixed on him, meeting with promoters and executives. These were people with high expectations, people on a mission to take his career to the next level. This record deal marked a new journey in his life. Where would it lead him? How would his road turn? Surely he had many questions, too.
For a while, Gil experienced a good deal of success, with songs like “Johannesburg,” “Angel Dust,” and “The Bottle.” Eventually, the journey that started with excitement and purpose would be his life’s irony. This man, with such vision, passion, and understanding of the world’s pitfalls, troubles, and vices, would sadly fall prey to some of them, ending up in the ditch right alongside the multitudes he spoke so much and so eloquently about in his music. Born April 1st – April Fool’s Day, Gil Scott-Heron had gone the way of many fools in his latter years: crack cocaine, cocaine, incarceration. Later, reportedly, there was HIV infection. And then he died. But thankfully not before his jazzy-blues laden music stirred and impacted millions the world over.
I celebrated Gil Scott-Heron’s life today (May 27, 2011) —reflecting on his poetic genius and listening to his flavorful music. The syncopated beats integrated with strong poetic vocals moved me to dance the dance of the homeland again. Jumping, twirling, feeling free--the mood of Africa-land. Feeling the pain, too, of the tall, lanky word master whose music transported me to a higher place, elevating my mental rhythm; but, unfortunately, who was unable before death to totally free himself.
Flo S. Jenkins is the award-winning writer/editor who established Right On! Magazine as the first #1 international entertainment publication for young African Americans in the 1970s, launching, supporting and propelling the careers of countless music artists and performers of the day, including Al Green, The Jackson Five, The Sylvers and more. Her extensive entertainment/music experience includes Arista Records, KTLA-TV, and as writer/editor/contributor for a myriad of publications and television projects. She continues as a writer/editorial consultant, college writing instructor and published playwright based in Southern California. Her first book is in process. Flo can be reached by email via email@example.com
About the Writer
Flo S. Jenkins is the award-winning writer/editor who established Right On! Magazine as the first #1 international entertainment publication for young African Americans in the 1970s, launching, supporting and propelling the careers of countless music artists and performers of the day, including Al Green, The Jackson Five, The Sylvers and more. Her extensive entertainment/music experience includes Arista Records, KTLA-TV, and as writer/editor/contributor for a myriad of publications and television projects. She continues as a writer/editorial consultant, college writing instructor and published playwright based in Southern California. Her first book is in process.