In January 2008 the late Gil Scott-Heron was featured in the New York Amsterdam News as a Black New Yorker. Daa’iya L. Sanusi wrote the following article.
Gil Scott-Heron, leader of The Amnesia Band and cofounder of the Midnight Band with Brian Jackson, is humble, elegant and eloquent. He’s the son of the late Mrs. Bobbie Scott-Heron and Giles ‘Gil’ Heron, also known as the “The Black Arrow,” who was a Jamaican football player with Scotland’s Glasgow Celtic football club. Having left the United States for Scotland, Heron became the team’s first Black player.
Gil Scott-Heron writes in his book of poems “Now and Then,” “I come from what they called ‘a broken home,’ but if they had ever really called at our house they would have known how wrong they were. We were working on our lives and our homes and. Dealing with what we had, not what we didn’t have. My life has been guided by women, and because of them I am a Man. God bless you, Mama. And thank you.”
Gil’s love and admiration for his grandmother, Mrs. Lily Scott, is told with great depth and pride within this same poem.
For a long time he has been a Harlemite who is a pianist first and poet second. Gil Scott-Heron is beloved by fans worldwide for the honest and revelatory lyrics in hundreds of his songs. Songs that he says, “Because of the contributions of Ron Carter and Hubert Laws, and the influence of Bob Thieie-the owner-producer of the Flying Dutchnian record label, a ‘jazz’ producer-Brian Jackson and I became ‘jazz’ artists.
“Which brings us to why I am reluctant to accept the title of ‘Godfather of Rap’. There still seems to be a need within our community to have what the griot supplied in terms of historical chronology; a way to identify and classify events in Black culture that were both historically influential and still relevant. In basketball for example, Michael Jordan was the first ‘Skywalker,’ unless you’ve seen David Thompson. Dr. ‘J’ was the only ‘Surgeon and General’ who could rebound like a center the ball full court like a guard and dunk 1ike nobody’s business-unless
you’ve seen Connie Hawkins.”
“In the same way, there were poets before me who had great influence on the language and the way it was performed and Oscar Brown, Jr., Melvin Van Peebles and Amiri Baraka were all published and well respected for their poetry, plays, songs and a range of other artistic achievements when the only thing I was taping were my ankles before basketball practice. It was The Last Poets (both groups) and their percussion-driven group deliveries which made the recordings, which serve to place my title as ‘Godfather’ in question,” writes Gil in his autobiographical selection of poems.
In fact, Gil Scott-Heron has at least 22 recordings, three published novels and four books of poetry. His soon-to-be released book, “The Last Holiday,” is the story of the triumphant journey launched by his friend Stevie Wonder to make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday and the incredible concert Gil Scott-Heron performed in with Stevie.
Every year, Gil Scott-Heron explains, “I give a holiday performance in honor of Dr. Martin Luther, King, Jr.’s legacy and birthday, no matter where I am.”
In this past weekend’s sold out performance at club S.O.B.’s, Gil paid homage to Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, Billie Holiday and John Coltrane, Certainly, Gil has shared the struggles that each of these leaders faced while maintaining a similar courage, genius and spirit.
And it is this spirit that Gil reveals when he says, “There were times when I ran into places along the song’s road that I could not navigate, and lines that completed verses and supports for bridges that were ‘given to me by spirits.’ The lyrics were ‘blessings.’ My blessings have not just been words and notes. Not just art.”
“My life has been blessed. With the joy of my children, with the strength of my family,
with the opportunity to share something of great value that has brought a great number of people both pride and pleasure. In truth, I call what I have been granted the opportunity to share ‘gifts.’ They have been gifts from the Spirits. For me these songs and poems are spirituals,” he says in a passage from the book “Now and Then.”
The great spirituals are borne out of tremendous oppression, and Gil Scott-Heron has had more than his share. Around 1984, after creating an album that criticized President Ronald Regan’s policies, Gil would “not be allowed to work” in the United States for almost 10 years, except for three clubs, one in San Diego, another in Washington, D.C, and one faithful one in New York.
But around the world in recordings Gil’s voice would never be forgotten, reminding us, “The Constitution was a noble piece of paper with Free Society that struggled but died in vain; and now Democracy is ragtime on the corner hoping for the rain. Save the children; Save your soul.”-from “Winter in America,” 1973.
And at S.O.B.’s, braving an extremely cold night, his fans thought warm thoughts and savored fond remembrances of seeing Gil Scott-Heron 15 years earlier. These were fans who know of his personal struggles, have seen him battle through tribulations and have supported his efforts to kick his addictions. And for his part, Gil Scott-Heron’s performance was inspired and he was clearly enjoying every moment.