winter in america: on gil scott-heron

Updated: Feb 10, 2018

Anyone who tells me they listen to Gil Scott-Heron is a special person, because unfortunately I haven’t yet met anybody who listens to Scott-Heron other than the sole person who introduced me to his music. Gil Scott-Heron is a poet, activist, singer, songwriter, bluesologist, originator of hip-hop, and teacher. He may be considered more than that by many- and with good reason- being the man who brought us poems like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," Gil Scott-Heron's artistry and presence in music history has earned him the highest regards in the minds of anyone who has dived through his discography.

Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1949, Gil Scott-Heron lived his elementary school years in Tennessee with his grandmother. Chosen to be one of three children to integrate a nearby school, Scott-Heron experienced the firsthand prejudice and racism that took place, which inspired much of his work. After his grandmother passed away, he moved in with his  mother in the Bronx, and attended The Fieldston School as one of 5 black students in the entire student body. Being in a prestigious school, and, again, subject to prejudice and a wide gap in socioeconomic class, Scott-Heron started writing poetry as he discovered important literature like Langston Hughes, which influenced his politically conscious and especially relevant writings which would later become the foundations for his legendary career.

After writing a novel entitled “The Vulture," Scott-Heron released “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox," whose track-list included his most well known performance: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." In this poem, Scott-Heron attacks the overconsumption of television and the triviality of the media, which was very dominant in 1970’s America. Clearly influenced by the tumults and turmoils arising in the 60’s and 70’s, Gil Scott-Heron held the prosperity of America to the highest importance and spoke of the various struggles of the American people as if they were the struggles of his own kin, as well as the racism and inequality faced by African-Americans. In times as tempestuous as the 70’s, Scott-Heron held a very composed light to the problems of the era and in-turn inspired future generations of artists- particularly early rappers- to look at social and political problems as starting points for discussions which could eventually lead to progressive steps toward equality and peace. In his song “Home Is Where The Hatred Is," Gil Scott-Heron takes it upon himself to relay the idea of life in an inner city and of life entrenched in drug addiction which he himself struggled with. This raw and unforgiving artistry is what made Gil Scott-Heron resonate with me and with others. He had no fear in talking about some of the most controversial topics- even at the most disagreeable level. In “The Subject Was F******s,” GSH is seen catapulting the homophobic slur over the heads of his listeners one after the other in a wildly confusing show of bigotry in contrast to his seemingly progressive poetry.

Although his homophobia may have been a product of his environment and the time he was in, it’s still a dark part in his legacy and is often overlooked by listeners when they get involved in his profound poetry. Profound not only because of the relevancy to his time, but because of the unfortunate timelessness of the message. Timeless because the same problems of his era are still and will be the essence of the state of America if less and less people become aware of these problems and if these problems are not relayed in a comprehensive, effective, and eloquent manner to be able to penetrate the people’s ears.

Scott-Heron spent his life trying to do this and did a good job but lacked the support of other artists to create a revolution in social and political issues. Left to watch the state of music slowly decline, he responds to rappers in “Message To The Messengers," Scott-Heron is distraught at the level of violence in rap music that he influenced and understands the potential of hip-hop as a tool to elevate awareness and consciousness in inner-city communities. Compared to today, the state of hip-hop is in a bad place, with fewer and fewer artists trying to speak of social issues and more important topics. Gil Scott-Heron’s spirit is very much needed in today’s world, and is present in people like Kendrick Lamar and in the soul of many great legends throughout rap history, but as we receive news of a new tragedy everyday, the politically profound poet is unfortunately few and far between.

Just watch the news and listen a song like "Winter In America" and realize the importance of a man like Gil Scott-Heron in today’s society. A victim of addiction and vices, Gil Scott-Heron died on May, 27 2011, due to complications from HIV. Even he couldn’t save himself from the “Angel Dust,” but the manner that he spoke of these issues is enough to earn him a place in history for his influence in civil rights, activism, and in the creation of hip-hop.

article by: javier mencia

visual by: michael wilkin for the vinyl factory



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