I was on an Afrikan Liberation Day panel in Detroit this past weekend with Dr. Claud Anderson and Dr. Maulana Karenga when a friend approached me with the news that Gil Scott-Heron had joined the ancestors.
When the word was delivered to the audience, a collective “Ohh!” was followed by an eerie hush as people began to whisper to each other, probably recalling his genius and particularly his famous recording, “We Almost Lost Detroit.”
His obituary appears elsewhere in the paper, but I offer this personal reflection-and along with the Detroit connection, it is ironic that just two weeks ago I purchased his latest CD, “I’m New Here,” on which one of the tunes is “New York is Killing Me.”
Unlike many Americans, I discovered Gil in a literary sense from his first novel, “The Vulture.” The last time we were together in the basement at SOB’s, he autographed the book and we talked about other Black authors, including James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright.
We had a wide-ranging discussion, mainly on President Barack Obama and the political scene at that moment. Earlier, while I was on the air with Imhotep Gary Byrd with Milton Allimadi and Cash Michaels, Gil arrived for his gig but wasn’t in too much of a hurry to share a few words on the air.
No matter his physical condition, Gil was nearly always conscious and coherent, ready to exchange ideas on a multitude of things. It is not surprising that his poetry and lyrics made him such a formidable artist on his albums, especially the early ones such as “Pieces of a Man” and “Winter in America,” which brought him everlasting international acclaim.
In the early 2000s, when he was not living with his mother in the Bronx, he lived on Sugar Hill at 345 W. 145th St. Whenever I visited the late Clarence Atkins, the jazz critic and historian, Gil’s door (he lived right across the hall from Clarence) would be wide open, as if inviting anyone who happened to be passing by to come on in, which I did on several occasions.
During some of those moments he wasn’t that talkative, mostly nodding his head to some comment and only occasionally adding a few lengthy explanations. One he repeated was similar to one he gave Daa’iya Sanusi on why he shouldn’t be viewed as the “Godfather of Rap.”
“I am reluctant to accept the title of ‘Godfather of Rap’ because there are so many other important writers and orators who came before me,” I recall him saying. “If you’re gonna make someone the progenitor of something, then you have to go all the way back to the beginning, and that’s a long, long time. I mean, consider the hundreds, if not thousands, of griots who played seminal roles in the architecture of our language, our expressive speeches and what have you. I am just one of many in a long line of griots who has been blessed to carry on the tradition of our culture.”
This is just an approximation of what he told me and what I vaguely remember, and the spirit of this is what he has told many people seeking to define him as one of the key influences on rap.
“I like to call what I do ‘midnight music,’” he told me during one interview. And I guess his words would also be part of that definition, that creative force.
While in Detroit, I appeared on the Rev. Horace Sheffield’s radio show on WGPR, and after I devoted a few words of remembrance to Gil, the engineer cued up “We Almost Lost Detroit.” One stanza of the song is in reference to the fast breeder reactor at Three Mile Island: “Just 30 miles from Detroit/ Stands a giant power station. It ticks each night as the city sleeps/Seconds from annihilation. But no one stopped to think about the people or how they would survive/And we almost lost Detroit, this time.”
Yes, we almost lost Detroit, and I wish we could have almost lost Gil-at least one more time.