Noted American writer, singer and social commentator Gil Scott-Heron passed away on 26 May 2011 in America at the age of 62. In today’s world where the social crisis created and developed by careless governments is reaffirmed every day, the loss of certain individuals, particularly those who were able to voice concern and awaken people, demands a few words to be shared in tribute. The message that these individuals preach through lyrics like Scott-Heron’s, depict reality as it truly is. His way of singing, though I never saw him live but heard on the radio, was quite unique.
After his death, I read in the UK’s Guardian newspaper an article written by one Abdul Malik Al Nasir. He said that Gil Scott-Heron was the man who through his personal touch, inspiring lyrics and talented singing had taught him the way of life. Al Nasir was illiterate at the age of 18 when he first met Gil. He had just come out of childhood care having been wrongly placed because of his racial profile for the previous nine years of his youth in England. Al Nasir with Gil’s support and encouragement went on to acquire a Masters degree and became a reputed writer and producer, such was the fire of the inspiration he had gained. His last tour of Europe was in 2009 and throughout Al Nasir was with him, now a successful man of his own.
Gil Scott-Heron during his long spanning career ranging from the late sixties to this decade has many noted albums to his credit, despite being silent for a decade in-between. I wanted to write about him now because he is one of those rare, gifted individuals who had the capacity despite enormous odds to create space where there is none and inspire a better way of life for others. Through his lyrics, he depicted the world around us, where democracy is failing from poor governance and affirmation by their own peoples. The strength of his books is great especially ‘The Vultures’, a mystery, and ;The Nigger Factory’ which he wrote when he was in his teens to secure a masters degree in English from Lincoln University, USA.
Gil Scott Heron always encouraged the left-out youth to come to terms with their situation and stand-up to realise their potential. He will be remembered as one of the few musicians who was a respected commentator on social strife, racism and the lot of minorities living in American ghettos. His famous works include “Pieces of Man” in which his song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” depicted the nature of social unhappiness prevailing at that time in 1971 in the black community. These were the years following the killings of Dr King and Malcolm X, and the raising of the left wrists with black gloves by two renowned black athletes who won gold medals during the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Another classic ‘Winter In America’ (1974) and the most recent ‘I Am New Here’ in 2010 established him as a voice of meaning and uprising.
All of his albums with Arista Records and some with others were sell-out hits. In the nineties he faded out from society and came out clean and healthy having spent a short stint in prison too. His lyrics such as ‘The Revolution Will Never Be Televised, The revolution will be live’ were still topical and is more relevant today, as we are all seeing around us – different springs of freedom floating around in different corners of the world. He was considered as the father figure of rap though some may debate it, transforming himself from an angry young man to a social commentator, as can be seen on ‘Home Is Where the Hatred Is’ on the album ‘Pieces Of A Man’.
I had no interest or understanding of black music or rap in my youth, but during my 14 long years of confinement in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, I went through the reality of America’s ghettos, it’s segregation of society and the relevance of black empowerment through music and rap. As I lived amongst the deprived of the system, men with no cause and hope, music and lyrics of people like Gil Scott-Heron made sense. I myself was going through a route less travelled and often not mentioned or recognised as being a Sikh and a rebel – a minority within Sikhs and within our nation state. Our Sikh way of life is full of religious discourse and noted ragis and now many reputed punjabi singers, but hardly a Gil Scott-Heron who can inspire and create sense within us and around us to stand up for dignity, pride, care and respect for oneself and those around us. Gil Scott-Heron, I salute you. You may have succumbed to the pressures of life at too early an age, but you did so creating hope and yearning for us all.