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Gil Scott-Heron, R.I.P.

Gil Scott-Heron died on Friday. He was 62.
Gil Scott-Heron died on Friday. He was 62.
Mischa Richter

You know why Gil never had much love for that ill-conceived Godfather of Rap tag. If you're already your own genre, you don't need the weak currency offered by another. If you're a one-off, why would you want to bask in the reflected glory of knock-offs? If you're already Odin, being proclaimed the decrepit sire of Thor and Loki just ain't gonna rock your world.

Gil knew he wasn't bigger than hip-hop—he knew he was just better. Like Jimi was better than heavy metal, Coltrane better than bebop, Malcolm better than the Nation of Islam, Marley better than the King James Bible. Better as in deeper—emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, politically, ancestrally, hell, probably even genetically. Mama was a Harlem opera singer; papa was a Jamaican footballer (rendering rolling stone redundant); grandmama played the blues records in Tennessee. So grit shit and mother wit Gil had in abundance, and like any Aries Man worth his saltiness he capped it off with flavor, finesse and a funky gypsy attitude.

He was also better in the sense that any major brujo who can stand alone always impresses more than those who need an army in front of them to look bad, jump bad, and mostly have other people to do the killing. George Clinton once said Sly Stone's interviews were better than most cats' albums; Gil clearing his throat coughed up more gravitas than many gruff MCs' tuffest 16 bars. Being a bona fide griot and Orisha-ascendant will do that; being a truth-teller, soothsayer, word-magician, and acerbic musical op-ed columnist will do that. Gil is who and what Rakim was really talking about when he rhymed, "This is a lifetime mission: vision a prison." Shouldering the task of carrying Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson and The Black Arts Movement's legacies into the 1970s world of African-American popular song will do that too. The Revolution came and went so fast on April 4, 1968, that even most Black people missed it. (Over 100 American cities up in flames the night after King's murder—what else do you think that was? The Day After The Revolution has been everything that's shaped America's racial profile ever since, from COINTELPRO to Soul Train, crack to krunk, bling to Barack.)

Gil, a student of radical history and politics, knew that if you were charged with the duties of oracle, troubadour, poet, gadfly, muckraker, and grassroots shit-talker, your job was to ride the times (and the Times) like Big rode beats, to provoke the state and the streets, to progress your own radical headspace. Many cats of Gil's generation became burnt-out anachronisms from trying to wage '60s battles on '70s battlegrounds; some are still at it today. Gil knew The Struggle was a work-in-progress—a scorecard event of win-some-lose-some, lick your wounds, live to fight another day. Keep your eyes on the prize—a more Democratic union—but also on the ever-changing same. Keep it progressive but keep it moving too. Not so difficult if you're the type of self-medicating brother who gets lonely if he doesn't hear the yap of hellhounds on his trail.

Gil described himself best as a "Bluesologist," a Hegelian-cum-African student of the science of "how things feel." Thus the vast emotional range in Gil's writings—why the existential consequences of getting high and the resultant pathos could move that stuttering vibrato to emphatic song same as the prospect of South African liberation could. We call Gil a prophet, but most prophets don't prophesy their own 40-year slow-death with the precision, poignancy and nuance he did on "Home Is Where The Hatred Is," "The Bottle" and "Angel Dust." Gil was better than most rappers because he leaned as hard on his vulnerability as other muhfuhkuhs lean on their glocks, AK's and dogged-out bitches, real or rhetorically imagined. His potency as a balladeer is vastly underrated compared to the shine shown his protest vehicles. If you yearn to hear your nutsack glorified, there are reams of lyrics ready to handily fulfill your manly needs. But the dude who needs a song allaying fears that his failure at marriage will cost him his children can only turn to "Your Daddy Loves You." I don't know what Gil's relationship to he and Brenda Sykes' only daughter Gia Scott-Heron was in his twilight-zone years, I just know that song owns the fraught distraught father-to-daughter communiqué category in the blues canon.

 

Even his most topical protest songs are too packed with feeling and flippancy to become yesterday's news, though—mostly because Gil's way with a witticism keeps even his Nixon assault vehicle "H20Gate Blues" current. Gil's genius for soundbites likewise sustains his relevance.

We'd all rather believe the revolution won't be televised than hear what he really envisioned beneath the bravado—that we may be too consumed with hypercapitalist consumption to care. And damn if we don't keep almost losing Detroit, and damn if even post-Apartheid we are all still very much wondering "What's the word?" from Johannesburg. And in this moment of The Arab Spring we may "hate it when the blood starts flowing" but still "love to see resistance showing." "No-Knock" and "Whitey on The Moon" remain cogent masterpieces of satire, observation and metaphor. "Winter In America" is hands-down Gil at his most grandiloquent and "literary" as a lyricist, standing with Sly's There's A Riot Going On (and the memoirs of Panthers Elaine Brown and David Hilliard) as the most bleak, blunt and beatific EKG readings of their post-revolutionary generation's post-traumatic stress disorders. "All of the healers have been killed or betrayed... and ain't nobody fighting because nobody knows what to save."

In death and in repose I now see Gil, Arthur Lee of Love, and the somehow still-standing Sly Stone as a triumvirate—a wise man/wiseguy trio of ultra-cool ultra-hip ultra-caring prognosticators of late-20th-century America's bent towards self-destruction and renewal. Cats who'd figured it all out by puberty and were maybe too clever and intoxicated on their own Rimbaudean airs to ever give up the call of the wild. Three high-flying visionary bad boys of funk-n-roll whose early flash and promise crash-landed on various temptations and whose last decades found them caught in cycles of ruin and momentary rejuvenation, bobbing or vanishing beneath their own sea of troubles.

Just as with Arthur, James Brown, and Sly, we always hoped against hope that Gil was one of those brothers who'd go on forever beating the odds, forever proving Death wrong, showing that he was too ornery and too slippery for the Reaper's clutches. Even after all those absurd years on the dope-run, and under the jail, even despite all of Gil's own best efforts to hurry along the endgame process. Not that I don't think Gil spending most of the last decade in prison wasn't a miscarriage of justice and an overly punitive crime against humanity. Or that "Free Gil," like "Free James," was a cry not heard often enough from an unmerciful grassroots body politic that had spent the '90s rightfully decrying crack as the plague of Black Civilization. Or that when Gil took the Central [Park stage last summer he sounded less like the half-dead wraith and scarred wreck of his haunted last (rites) album I'm New Here and more like his lively, laconic, modal blues piano-pounding jazz and salsa-bending younger self. No acceptance of HIV-positive status as a death sentence found here. Pieces of a man's life in full, indeed.

Hendrix biographer David Henderson (a poet-wizard himself) once pointed out that the difference between Jimi and Bob Dylan and Keith Richards was that when Dylan and Richards were on the verge, whole hippie networks of folk got invested in their survival. But no one stood up when Jimi stumbled, all alone like a complete unknown rolling stone. Gil's fall at the not-so-ripe age of 62 reminds me that one thing my community does worst is intervene in the flaming out of our brightest and most fragile stars, so psychically on edge are most of us ourselves. Gil's song "Home Is Where The Hatred Is" seems in retrospect not only our most anguished paean to addiction, but the writer's coldest indictment of the lip service his radical community paid to love in The Beautiful Struggle. "Home was once a vacuum/ that's filled now with my silent screams/ and it might not be such a bad idea if I never went home again." Mos Def reached out, gave back, magnificently soon as Gil got out the joint three years ago, bringing a rail-thin, spectral, dangling-in-the-wind shadow of Gil's former selves to the stage at Carnegie Hall for the last time, if not the first.

But end of the day, here we go again, just another dead Black genius we lacked the will or the mercy or the mechanisms to save from himself. End of the day, It all just make you wanna holler, quote liberally from The Book of Gaye and Scott-Heron, say "Look how they do my life." Make you wanna holler, throw up your hands, grab your rosary beads, do everything not to watch the disheveled poet desiccating over there in the corner—the one croaking out your name as you shuffle around him hoping not to be recognized that one late-'80s morn on the 157 IRT platform, where, even while cracked out and slumped against the wall, Gil was determined to verbally high-five you brother-to-brother.

We all kept saying "Why don't he just 'kick it quit it/ kick it quit it,'" but Gil, more cunning, wounded and defensive than any junkie born, kept pushing back harder, daring any of us to try and rationally answer his challenge to the collective's impotencies and inadequacies: "You keep saying kick it, quit it/ God, but did you ever try?/ To turn your sick soul inside out/ So that the world, so that the the world /can watch you die? " What the funk else can we say in all finality now, but, uh, "Peace go with you too, Br'er Gil."


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