Gil Scott-Heron’s life

From the July-August 2011 issue of News & Letters:

Gil Scott-Heron’s life

When Gil Scott-Heron passed on May 27, we lost one of the great artists of our time. As the “Winter In America” of which he sang stretches on, cold and brutal, his voice remains as relevant as his presence is missed.

Coming out of the Black Power movement, he had a keen understanding of where Black Americans stand historically: “I think that Black Americans have been the only real die-hard Americans because we’re the ones that have carried the process through the process. We’re the ones who marched, we’re the ones who carried the Bible, we’re the ones who carried the flag, we’re the ones who had to go through the courts, and being born American didn’t seem to matter. Because we were born American but we still had to fight for what we were looking for.”

Gil Scott-Heron’s poetry cut deep. As he said, it showed you what was happening inside people. In this way it also served to point out our common humanity: the shamed, desperate junkie who speaks in “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” could co-exist in the same world, in the same soul, with the masses struggling for freedom in “Johannesburg” or “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Revolutionaries who learn that lesson will be better revolutionaries.

His song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” he said, “was about the fact that the first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you live. So we were saying that the thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film.”

In later years, Scott-Heron had his own issues with substance abuse. As tragic as that is, it doesn’t undermine the truth of his art, but drives it home.

–Tim Finnigan

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