Sad To See You Leaving 2011: Gil Scott Heron

by George_East on December 26, 2011

‘RIP GSH.  And we do what we do and how we do because of you’ tweeted Public Enemy’s Chuck D on hearing that Gil Scott Heron had died from pneumonia at the age of 62 on May 27.    The links between the intelligent political rap of black consciousness epitomised by Long Island’s finest and Gil Scott Heron are obvious.   He was often called the godfather of rap as a result of his spoken word work in the 1970s and 1980s – all of it infused with a political awareness that would be sadly absent from most hip hop after the Golden Age of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Heron, though flattered by being cited by many contemporary hip hop artists as an influence was rightly critical of what he saw as the posturing of much rap music.  He also took the view that many younger artists were insufficiently aware of their own musical heritage – that they needed to spend more time listening to the great blues, soul and jazz canon that shaped American black music.

Gil Scott Heron called himself a bluesologist – he took his own musical history and African American cultural history seriously.    On his first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (a title tapping referencing the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s as well as a nightclub at which Heron had frequently played) he announced himself to the world as ‘A New Black Poet’.   The liner notes thanked John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Otis Redding, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X and Huey Newton, amongst others.

That debut album kicked off with the extraordinary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a brilliant dissection of consumerism at a time of ferment in youth politics.  Unfortunately the consumerism won out and in the west at least took the politics with it.   As we have seen this year though, the Middle East and North Africa, not so much.

Gil Scott Heron pretty much disappeared from the musical world in the 1990s and 2000s, occasionally turning up to do a guest slot on records by other musicians.   Drug use took its toll.  He did time for cocaine possession in the early part of the 00s and was then sent to prison again for violating his parole by leaving a drug rehabilitation centre.   He said he had to because the centre did not have the HIV drugs he needed.

Finally getting his shit together, he released a superb and critically acclaimed final album in 2010, I’m New Here.    In his absence his reputation had grown enormously – something he may have been surprised about himself.  On the release of the album this man who had spent a good part of the last decade in prison or in drug rehab centres appeared on Newsnight and the Today programme for extended interviews to promote it.  Jamie xx from Mercury prize winning teenage prodigies The xx, released a remix of the album called We’re New Here, showing Heron’s relevance to a new generation of musicians.

A bizarre bit of GSH trivia is the fact that he was the son of  the Jamaican, Gil ‘The Black Arrow’ Heron, one of the first black players to play in British football – having a season for Celtic in 1951-52, scoring 2 league goals in 5 first team appearances.

He was a unique artist, whose influence can be heard everywhere in contemporary music.  No one else though has combined jazz, poetry, spoke word, soul, rap and politics so brilliantly.   A particularly sad loss as he looked as if he was about to enter a second golden period.

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