Prophetic Genius of Gil Scott Heron
By Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.
Gil Scott Heron (1949-2011) was more than a legendary entertainer. He was a social and political visionary that helped to inspire generations of young gifted and talent poets, spoken word artists, rappers, and a global cadre of musical and cultural satirists that have contributed to the irreversible, progressive transformations of the mindsets of hundreds of millions of young people from Harlem, New York to Soweto, South Africa; and from the Delta in Mississippi and the bayous of Louisiana to Trench Town in Jamaica to the barrios of Brazil and deep into the crucible neighborhoods of the South Bronx and South Central LA as well as throughout what is culturally referred today as the “Dirty South.”
Heron was a contemporary of Bob Marley in the essence of their mutual penetrating and relentless critique of human oppression, racism, and suffering. Gil Scott Heron was urban, rural, Pan African, and global, all at the same time. What James Baldwin did with his consciousness evoking novels, Heron did with his musical compositions and literary genius. Gil Scott Heron was a determinative and inspirational “bridge” artist between the culture revolutions of the 1960’s and the 1970’s up to the evolution of the hip-hop generation in the 1980’s. That is why many referred to Brother Gil as one of the “Godfathers of rap.”
Gil was born in Chicago in 1949, but was raised in the Bronx. He not only wrote poetry and music from the 1970’s through 2010, he also became an accomplished novelist. Yet, it was his on-stage performances and his off-stage advocacy as a champion of African American and Pan African liberation that gave him an endearing intergenerational following for more than four decades. Today in 2011, there are some who question how the music and lyrics of the current superstars of hip-hop are related to past generations of poets and spoken word artists. The answer to that question is fully displayed in the life and career of Gil Scott Heron.
Like the phenomenal Langston Hughes of the famed Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Gil Scott Heron attended a famous Historically Black College and University (HBCU), Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. While at Lincoln University in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Heron refined his artistic abilities and began to branch out across different genres of music including the blues, jazz, soul, R&B and liberation music. During the fight against apartheid in South Africa, Gil Scott Heron’s voice was heard and felt by millions of people throughout the world. About Gil, Dr. Cornel West said, “His example has been a profound inspiration to me and many others in terms of fusing the musical with the prophetic and being willing to take a risk or pay a cost in order to lay bare some unsettling truths with such artistic sophistication.”
Yes, Gil Scott Heron was my close friend and consistent comrade in the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality. We shared together many forums, mass organizing rallies, grassroots mobilizing campaigns in the major large cities, but also in many rural towns and villages. While I was imprisoned most of the 1970’s, as a member of the Wilmington, NC Ten, it was Brother Gil who produced music about “Free the Wilmington Ten and all political prisoners.” Heron’s music made you dance, clap your hands, stomp your feet, and raise your clenched fists into the air to shout “Power to the People!” But most of all, Gil’s poetry and music would make you uncomfortable with injustice.
After you listen to Heron’s music, it will make you want to join the movement for change where ever you are located. Gil Scott Heron once told me, “Hey man, each one of us has to play a role in making the revolution for freedom real. If someone merely gives you what you might think is your freedom, then it is not really freedom; it is just an illusion of freedom…. But, if you fight for your freedom, no one can ever take it away from you, can you dig it?”
Yes, we can “dig” what Gil Scott Heron represented. A prophet just does not predict the future. To be prophetic really means to discern what it is that God is calling for you to do in the present. Gil Scott Heron answered God’s call with the genius of his music and lyrics. Now, Heron has passed the torch to the generation of poets, musicians, and lyricists of today. Please keep that torch lit with the fire of freedom for all.
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is Senior Advisor to the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) and President of Education Online Services Corporation.