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Gil-Scott Heron

“I think they made a mistake”

by Lindokuhle Nkosi / 30.05.2011

Gil-Scott Heron is easily “the most sampled Spoken Word artist of our time”. His distinctive voice recently featured alongside Kanye West and Bon Iver on West’s moving CD closer “Lost in the World/Who will Survive in America”. Heralded as the godfather of hip hop, his signature militant vocal style and sardonic social commentary inspired hip hop giants like Public Enemy and NWA. When asked how he felt about single-handedly sparking the new-wave of hip hop, he shrugged, “I think they made a mistake.”

Heron seemed to resent the connection, often flatly denying it. He refused to be seen as the inadvertent creator of gangta rap or an originator of the materialistic, hyper-masculine vocal flows that have come to define commercial hip hop. “You don’t really see inside the person,” Heron said. “You just get a lot of posturing.”

With Gil-Scott Heron, there were no forced gestures; no affectations exaggerated for popular appeal. From his private life (“Womenfolk raised me and I was full grown/before I knew I came from a broken home”) to his biting indictments on Black existence in White America, everything was presented as an idiosyncratic, schizophrenic permutation of hope, anger and gut-wrenching honesty. The most popular of his works, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, was penned in admonition of the dumbing down of Black America by a powerful opiate of television and media. This was in 1968 when he was only 18 years old.

He went on to release 13 albums between 1970 and 1982, working with Jazz greats like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie. Like a ghetto griot, he reinforced this status with pieces such as “The Bottle” written about the damning affects of alcohol, “Johannesburg” a scathing dissection of apartheid rule and and “Angel Dust”, a funk-fuelled rebuke of the prevalence of drugs in his community.


“He was groovin’

and that was when he coulda sworn

the room was movin’

But that was only in his mind

He was sailin’

he never really seemed to notice

vision failin’

’cause that was all part of the high

Sweat was pourin’ –

he couldn’t take it
The room was exploding –

he might not make it.

Angel Dust
Please, children would you listen.

Angel Dust
Just ain’t where it’s at.

Angel Dust
You won’t remember what you’re
but down some dead end streets

there ain’t no turnin’ back.”

Heron didn’t heed his own warning and got addicted to crack in the late 80’s. His already spare physique withered and dried. The Afro he once wore as a crown seemed to weigh him down. He grew to begrudge his own image, avoiding mirrors and photographs. Demons he heroically warned his fans about, possessed him, and he could not face himself.

In 2000, he got arrested on possession charges and while out on parole in 2003 he was caught at an airport with cocaine concealed in the lining of his coat. In 2006, he was jailed again for violating his plea-deal by leaving rehab. It looked like end.

But in 2010 Heron released I’m New Here, one of the strongest albums of a peerless career. An even bigger surprise was the liberal use of hip hop beats. Acceptance of self seemed to ease through him into the music. The CD is now a moving final statement. In “New York”, a mesmerising confessional blues, he sings, “The doctors don’t know, but New York is killing me.” His parched voice sounds so tired and desperate. A solemn, sad warning. A desolate cry for help.

Gil-Scott Heron died in a New York Hospital on a Friday afternoon.

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  1. polony says:

    not good enough…

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  2. JM Koet$ee says:

    Gil Scott-Heron, RIP. You’ve saved many with your music.

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  3. Phumlani says:

    Sorry to say i’m with polony on this one. As sincere as this is, it feels that a lot has been left out, for instance the transformation of his music and ability to adapt with the times and not simply make a new album with the liberal use of hip-hop beats? take another listen and consider who was behind production. Peace to Mr Heron.

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  4. rocMarci says:


    “take another listen and consider who was behind production.”

    What is that supposed to mean? You elitists always blowing hot air..

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  5. Phumlani says:


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  6. Andy says:

    Yeah come on Phumlani… who was behind the production? What point are you trying to make?

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  7. Phumlani says:

    And bold headed jewish man without a clue tries to find more cool. more investigation and interrogation of the transformation of an artist. fuck you guys the interwebs is infinite in its knowledge look him up yourselves.

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  8. bce says:

    ‘bold headed’ – he is that. he started mahala on a wing and a prayer…

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  9. Blah says:

    Going for the high ground and finding the swamp.

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  10. Rose long says:


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  11. Matt says:

    Very cool. I enjoyed it.

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  12. nissim says:

    @phumlani – so you gotta be a hairy gentile to be cool?… two strikes but I’m still in the game. bring on the next challenge…. just don’t make me become a snide, pretentious little hater.

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  13. Andy says:

    Phumlani all I’m saying is that it’s particularly shortsighted (meanspirited) to jump up in here and say there’s more to the story and that we fell short, then disappear without adding or contributing what that is. In fact it’s childish. If you have knowledge share it. Tell us where we went wrong. Otherwise you just look like a hater…

    Personal dig aside, what’s this about?

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  14. Phumlani says:

    Dude my expectations come from a standard you have already set. For the past of couple of weeks the site has generated some outstanding work and subjectively mentioned what I found lacking in the article. It’s not mean spirited to say the story fell short for me, it’s simply opinion. I do make mention of what “I” thought should have been added and have given more than enough info for people do do their own research and decide whether they agree or not. It’s drawing your own conclusions to shit versus being spoonfed. While she writes quite a bit about his early life and career she does not go into detail about his last work, which doesn’t make sense to me, i thought it would the perfect ending.

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  15. Phumlani says:

    nissim I have no idea man or woman

    what are you talking about?

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  16. nissim says:

    @phumlani – not quite sure what your question is.
    …but since I’ve got you on the line, tell me… would you consider giving another hairline-challenged semite some insider tips – maybe a half-hour session or two – on how to be cool in a contemporary SA. I’ve been on the interweb all day trying to get some legit advice… but all sites keep directing me back to Mahala (a site supposedly run by another uncool, follicly-challenged little kike like me). help!
    willing to throw some good lucre your way if you can do anything for me (you know we’re all swimming in the benjamins)

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  17. Phumlani says:

    wow, you have a lot of ways to name being jewish. i think kike might even be derogatory but hey black people call themselves niggas so why not let you guys do that to. i do not the cool is. so keep your cash for someone who has something to sell.

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  18. Phumlani says:

    *i do not know what the cool is.

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  19. Andy says:

    Still douchey to jump in and say there’s something wrong with this piece, i know, but I’m not going to say what it is

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  20. polony says:

    I think, perhaps, in a mahala that constantly champions the virtues of ‘personal’ journalism this article fell very flat. as vague a critique as this is, I feel the article lacked soul.

    It’s not incorrect, this obituary, but it is not good enough, and therefore bad. It feels like mahala wrote it out of obligation – ie the writer was not moved to write it but asked to… Just a feeling I get.

    A large hole in this article (especially for mahala) concerns Scott-Heron’s singular insight into his work. He wrote and performed from a place of personal experience, his work is not Dickens or Wolfe, investigating the dispair and delight of the downtrodden. And considering Mahala’s practice of sending middle class kids to chronicle our society, I think that this was a good opportunity to look into the meaning of that.

    There is a sense of missed opportunity here.
    The man is bigger than this, his influence is wider, his life more grand, his work more important, his death more ridiculous.

    Fuck it. if you dont get it, its not for you.

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  21. polony says:

    “And to those that don’t know tip your hat with a hand over your heart & recognize.” – Chuck D on the passing of Gil Scott Heron

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  22. Phumlani says:

    Polony for president.

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  23. Andy says:

    yeah thanks Polony… that’s so much better and more constructive than “not good enough…”

    I can take something from that. Phumlani… I’m still waiting.

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  24. Phumlani says:

    Andy, even after our facebbok chat?

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  25. DontTestLordFinesse says:

    It might not be such a bad idea if I neveeEr, never went home again!

    Dankie Gil Scott Heron, Pieces Of a Man still keeps me company wherever I go.
    Nice article Majita, i wonder if polony’s superpowers can tell what colour underwear the writer was wearing when writing this. Since he/she/it could feel the writer was forced to write this piece.

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  26. DontTestLordFinesse says:

    oh i mean ”asked”

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  27. happy brown says:

    Come now kids we at a funeral, lets fight at the after tears.”Sending middle class kids to chronicle our society”, nice polony for feudal lord. I love how white middle class brats and black middle brats fight about whose internet connection stays on the longest for them to find the jewels of knowledge that the commoner can’t find. Share the knowledge and stop sitting on your victimhood pedestal, let people know where to find out about a old black man who suffered through life and had his suffering commodified so brats could argue about who knows more. Thank you for the Gil Scott Heron piece, thank you for the Zimology piece before you it was difficult to find such earnest dialogue between people. I don’t know about this Andy character(lol).

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  28. Lizzy says:

    The problem is perhaps that there are a lot of substantive articles out there on the passing of this great individual, this one seems a little thinner then the others. I do think it works well as a small musing on the man, rather than an obituary…

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  29. JM Koet$ee says:

    Thanks Happy Brown for putting things to rights.

    Andy, I don’t envy your position as editor.

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  30. mfanekiso. says:


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