“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
’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.
Please, children would you listen.
Just ain’t where it’s at.
You won’t remember what you’re missin’,
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.