Gil Scott-Heron, hard-eyed realist, dead of self-inflicted escapism

Gil Scott-Heron, dead at age 62, was a poet, prophet and spokesperson of the black urban American experience. A merciless and unsentimental truth-teller when he emerged on the scene in the ’70s, by telling Afro-identified kids dancing to Motown and grooving on psychedelic rock that “the revolution will not be televised” he meant that the real revolution in Civil Rights and human conduct was not a show, that those who wanted to make it happen or enjoy its results had to liberate themselves from sitting on the couch zoning out, that there was dirty work ahead.

I heard him in 1970 at Colgate University on a bill with the Last Poets — one reason why the rise of poetry slams and rap didn’t seem like anything new to me when they came along a decade later. I didn’t listen to him much, but I heard and mostly respected what he had to say — and anyway, Scott-Heron’s message wasn’t aimed at me. I admire that he reached his target audience, without compromising his vision.

Scott-Heron, rather like Miles Davis in On The Corner, predicated the blaxploitation film esthetic, hardcore funk of the later ’70s and ghetto lit (pace the great Chester Himes and lesser if more popular Iceberg Slim). He inspired rappers to look at the gangsterism and other real-life extremism around them, and to relate the unforgiving experiences of a still-with-us underclass to a critical, political point of view.

It’s surprising to read in his obituaries about Scott-Heron had a relatively privileged (but probably no less conflicted) personal background — but on second thought not so surprising, because only the well-read will think that words, whether poetry or prose, can change the world. Unfortunately his identification with tell-it-like-it-is analysis and gritty street life became so unrelenting he succumbed to its self-destructive escape routes, specifically the addictive crack pipe. 

As big city America recovered from its ’70s economic scrabble, Americans “of color” did find ways to move in greater numbers into the middleclass mainstream society, and rap turned into advertisements for bling and corporate king-making. Scott-Heron stood outside that, marginalized as a Ezekial-on-the-mean-streets. A dissenter, he scorned the complacency of the multitude. But he could not survive the ravages that have eaten away the core of old school oppositional American culture. He was no self-healing Oprah or bridge-building Obama. So he basically killed himself after rendering his poetic voice irrelevant, unable to adapt, drowned in illusory sensation. I’ve had second thoughts about this. See next post.)

Compare him to Amiri Baraka, the staunch anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist who’s managed to reap grants, prizes and honors, or the Last Poets themselves, who keep the faith as veterans of genuine and oh-so-rhythmic cutting edge black American perspectives.

Gil Scott Heron was a man who made an incontrovertible choice to cast a cold, clear eye on society, and for that he should be listened to, remembered. That he couldn’t see or wouldn’t do anything about his own self-imposed afflictions is rather tragic. The story of a grim realist who takes refuge personal failings rather than facing up to them seems like a subject the poet, prophet and spokesperson Gil Scott-Heron would have grasped and railed on at first glance.
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  1. says

    “Winter in America,” “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” “”And Then He Wrote Meditations,” and so many more of his works were not only poetry, but songs, full of jazz feeling and expression. It seems to me that it is unduly harsh to dwell on his sad decline rather than to celebrate the uplifting power of his music.
    HM: I’m disturbed that a man who was so conscious of the pitfalls insisted on stepping into them. But I’ve drafted another post on Gil Scott-Heron, which I’ll complete and put up today.

  2. says

    A loss and just as he was breaking to an even wider and younger audience. That connection between Jazz and poetry goes way-back and Gil tapped the essence of this; plus he mixed in a heady mix of raw political realism. It’s a pity that his demons followed him to the end – but perhaps that’s part of the high wire riskiness that poets and musicians fix upon.