Singer, songwriter, writer, activist
Mixing his unique, highly politicized, and verbally complex poetry with minimal percussion in the early 1970s, and developing a speaking/singing soul-jazz form he christened “bluesology,” performer Gil Scott-Heron has been widely credited with helping to invent rap. The title of Scott-Heron’s best-known piece, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” has become a pop catchphrase, and his evolving activism would influence several highly regarded albums before he took a long hiatus; it was almost a decade before Scott-Heron released a new album to an eager public in 1994. By this time the legacy of his career was apparent; many of the most ambitious young rap and hip-hop artists have laid claim to Scott-Heron as a crucial influence.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Scott-Heron was raised by his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee, after his parents divorced. He briefly attended school in his hometown, but as one of a handful of black students in the heart of segregationist America, he was unable to tolerate the abuse ladled out by his white schoolmates. Scott-Heron, now with his mother, moved to New York City. There he discovered his writing talents and a wealth of inspiration provided by black American writers of the “Harlem Renaissance,” a literary movement of the early 1900s that included such writers as Langston Hughes. Like Hughes, the precocious Scott-Heron attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Though he left after a year, he made the acquaintance of Brian Jackson, who would figure prominently in his musical endeavors.
Scott-Heron’s literary ambitions were substantial and were backed up by considerable stylistic prowess; he published his first novel, The Vulture, at age 19. The story of urban youth, drugs, and death, The Vulture indicated an already sophisticated writing voice. Scott-Heron next published the poetry collection Small Talk at 125th & Lenox. The title also graced his first album, a spoken-word recording featuring sparse music and percussion tracks released by Flying Dutchman in 1970.
The album Small Talk at 125th & Lenox includes an early rendition of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a diatribe against mass media’s trivialization of social upheaval and the seeming paralysis of those who watch via television. “A little over 21 years ago I was introduced into what is laughingly referred to as civilization,” the young author wrote in the album’s liner notes, adding “I am a Black man dedicated to expression; expression of the joy and pride of blackness. I
For the Record…
Born April 1, 1949, in Chicago, IL; son of a soccer player and a librarian; raised in Jackson, TN, and New York City. Education: Attended Lincoln University, PA.
Writer and recording artist. Signed with Flying Dutchman, 1970-74; recorded debut album Small Talk at 125th & Lenox (includes “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”), 1970; released The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (includes “Whitey on the Moon”), Flying Dutchman, 1974; signed with Arista, 1975-85; contributed to all-star benefit projects No Nukes, 1980, and Sun City, 1985; subject of film Black Wax, 1984; participated in MTV Free Your Mind Spoken Word tour, 1994; signed with TVT Records and released album Spirits, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —TVT Records, 23 East 4th St., New York, NY 10003.
consider myself neither poet, composer or musician. These are merely tools used by sensitive men to carve out a piece of beauty or truth that they hope may lead to peace and salvation.”
Scott-Heron recorded two more albums for Flying Dutchman, Pieces of a Man —featuring a more developed version of “The Revolution”—and Free Will. Rolling Stone deemed the former “an involving, important album,” favoring Scott-Heron’s singing and “assurance and directness as a songwriter” over what reviewer Vince Aletti considered the heavy-handedness of the poetry. The prolific Scott-Heron also published a new novel, The Nigger Factory. After a dispute, Scott-Heron left Flying Dutchman and released Winter in America on the Strata-East label in 1974. The mellow, sorrowful jazz of the title track—reflecting black America’s melancholy in the midst of conservative retrenchment—and “The Bottle”—a fast-paced, funky sermon on alcoholism—demonstrated their author’s increasing breadth as a composer and lyricist.
In 1975 Scott-Heron became the first artist to sign with Clive Davis’s new Arista label. “Not only is he an excellent poet, musician and performer—three qualities I look for that are rarely combined—but he’s a leader of social thought,” Davis proclaimed to Rolling Stone’s Sheila Weiler. Linking up again with Jackson, Scott-Heron developed some of his most acclaimed material. His second Arista release, From South Africa to South Carolina, contained the energetic “Johannes-burg,” a proclamation of solidarity with blacks in then white-ruled South Africa that reached the Top 40. “Our vibration is based on creative solidarity: trying to influence the black community toward the same kind of dignity and self-respect that we all know is necessary to live,” Scott-Heron told Weiler. “We’re trying to put out survival kits on wax.”
Scott-Heron parted company with Jackson in the early 1980s and explored jazzier territory as well as the techno-funk that had begun to dominate black pop. As well as exploring more personal issues, he continued attacking specific political targets. The U.S. presidential election of conservative Republican Ronald Reagan—“Ray-gun,” as Scott-Heron was fond of calling him—unleashed a further torrent of musical scorn.
In 1980 Scott-Heron also released his anti-nuclear anthem “Shut ‘Em Down” on the all-star No Nukes concert album. However, as the decade advanced, Scott-Heron was increasingly isolated in his political militancy. As Stereo Review’s Phyl Garland observed, “Unlike his peers, he is not afraid to seem a throwback to more outspoken times. Although protest songs are no longer in vogue, Scott-Heron remains a committed wave-maker, sweeping out onto the beach of public awareness such disturbing matters as drug abuse, poverty, police brutality, and international conflict.”
In 1984 Arista released The Best of Gil Scott-Heron, but would drop the artist the following year. He collaborated with jazz legend Miles Davis on “Let Me See Your I.D.” for the anti-apartheid benefit album Sun City, but otherwise stopped recording for several years, though he continued to tour and a documentary film was made about him. Unfortunately for fans, most of his albums went out of print. With the exception of the Best of collection and the earlier The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, much of his work would not be available on CD for many years. The re-release in 1988 of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised reintroduced to a new generation the Scott-Heron classic “Whitey on the Moon,” a satirical comment on American socioeconomic values.MichaelJ. Agovino in Spin described the piece as having a “right-between-the-eyes punch.”
Despite being virtually ignored by the media and suffering from a hereditary disability he identified to Kim Green of Paper as “a scoliotic condition,” Scott-Heron continued making public appearances with his group, the Amnesia Express, and also as a monologuist. With the dawn of the 1990s and the emergence of hip-hop artists who gravitated both toward jazz and sophisticated political expression, Scott-Heron’s legacy came into clearer focus to many who had previously ignored him.
Indeed, such artists as Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Arrested Development, Digable Planets, KRS-1, and Me’Shell Ndgeocello owed a clear debt to Scott-Heron’s articulate messages and the funky lyricism of his music. One of his acolytes—poet Dana Bryant, with whom he shared a stage—was distraught to hear her idol say privately in 1992 that “there ain’t no revolution, and there wasn’t no revolution, and there will be no revolution.” As she told New York, “I was devastated.” Yet Scott-Heron himself told the Detroit Free Press the following year that “The winter [in America] is man-made. So the spring can be man-made too.”
Ultimately, Scott-Heron insists that what he does is all about feel. He defined “bluesology” to Green: “What bluesology is supposed to say is how it feels. The articulation isn’t melodic, exotic or erotic; it ain’t none of those things. It’s that they all come together and relate what it feels like. I play what it feels like.” As far as his influence on younger artists is concerned, he insisted, “I do think that the form of rap has taken more aspects of my particular style than anyone else’s in the scope of these kids and their illusions, but I think of myself as the father of black poetry, and I’ve done far more than anyone would have expected of me.”
A record company bio has Scott-Heron musing, “I ain’t saying I didn’t invent rapping, I just cannot recall the circumstances.” In an interview for Billboard, he criticized many rap artists, declaring “They need to study music” and “There’s not a lot of humor. They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms, and you don’t really see inside the person. Instead you just get a lot of posturing.” Scott-Heron got a chance to show the rap generation how it’s done when he appeared on the MTV Free Your Mind Spoken Word Tour with such younger writers as Reg E. Gaines and Maggie Estep.
At last, in 1993, Scott-Heron signed with TVT Records and recorded a new album, Spirits, which was released the following year. The label also announced its intention to acquire a portion of his back catalog on CD. On the song “Message to the Messengers,” Scott-Heron spoke directly to young rappers: “I ain’t comin’ at you with no disrespect/All I’m sayin’ is you damn well got to be correct/Because if you’re gonna be speaking for a whole generation/And you know enough to handle their education/Be sure you know the real deal about past situations/And ain’t just repeating what you heard on a local TV station.”
In the liner notes to Spirits Scott-Heron also emphasized the importance of recognizing the “spirits” of black ancestors and the history of the struggle. “In truth I call what I have been granted the opportunity to share ‘gifts,’” he wrote. “I would like to personally claim to be the source of the melodies and ideas that have come through me, but that is just the point. Many of the shapes of sound and concepts have come upon me from no place I can trace: Notes and chords I’d never learned, thoughts and pictures I’d never seen. And all as clear as a sky untouched by cloud or smog or smoke or haze. Suddenly. Magically. As if transferred to me without effort.”
Such, he seemed to say, was the influence of the artistic and political triumphs of the “spirits”; such, indeed, has been the force of Scott-Heron’s own work on a new generation of bluesologists.
The Vulture (novel), World Publishing, 1970.
Small Talk at 125th & Lenox(poeiry), World Publishing, 1970.
The Nigger Factory (novel), Dial Press, 1972.
The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron (poetry and lyrics), 1979.
So Far, So Good (lyrics), Third World Press, 1990.
Small Talk at 125th & Lenox, Flying Dutchman, 1970.
Pieces of a Man (includes “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”), Flying Dutchman, 1971.
Free Will, Flying Dutchman, 1972.
Winter in America (includes “Winter in America” and “The Bottle”), Strata-East, 1974.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Flying Dutchman, 1974; reissued, BMG, 1988.
The First Minute of a New Day, Arista, 1975.
It’s Your World, Arista, 1976.
Bridges, Arista, 1977.
Secrets, Arista, 1978.
The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron, Arista, 1979.
(Contributor) “Shut ’Em Down,” No Nukes: Musicians for Safe Energy, Asylum, 1980.
Real Eyes, Arista, 1980.
Reflections, Arista, 1981.
Moving Target, 1982.
(Contributor) “Shut ’Em Down,” Sunsplash Live, Tuff Gong, 1983.
The Best of Gil Scott-Heron, Arista, 1984.
(Contributor) “Let Me See Your I.D.,” Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid, Manhattan, 1985.
Tales of Gil Scott-Heron and His Amnesia Express, Peak Top (UK), 1990.
Spirits (includes “Message to the Messengers”), TVT, 1994.
Faber Companion to Twentieth-Century Popular Music, edited by Phil Hardy and Dave Laing, Faber & Faber, 1990.
Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
Billboard, April 2, 1994.
Detroit Free Press, April 9, 1993.
Down Beat, November 1983.
New York, January 20, 1992.
Paper, June 1993.
Pulse!, November 1993.
Rolling Stone, January 2, 1975.
Spin, August 1984.
Vibe, August 1994.
Additional information was provided by TVT publicity materials and Gil Scott-Heron’s liner notes to Spirits, 1993-94.
April 1, 1949
Composer and writer Gil Scott-Heron spent his childhood in Jackson, Tennessee, until the age of thirteen, when he moved to New York City. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania because two men he greatly admired, Langston Hughes and African leader Kwame Nkrumah, had gone to Lincoln. After his freshman year he took a leave of absence to write a novel, The Vulture, and a book of poetry, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, both published in 1970. He returned to Lincoln to complete his sophomore year and then applied to the graduate program at Johns Hopkins University. In 1972 he received an M.A. and published a second novel, The Nigger Factory.
Although he published a second book of poetry, So Far, So Good, in 1988, Scott-Heron has concentrated on composing, performing, and recording music. From 1974 on, he was accompanied by the Midnight Band, led by Brian Jackson. With Jackson, a pianist, generally concentrating on musical arrangements and Scott-Heron collaborating on lyrics, the group has produced nearly twenty recordings, including Winter in America, Sun City, From South Africa to South Carolina, and his last album, in 1994, Spirits. Combining Latin, blues, and jazz rhythms with a distinct vocal style, Scott-Heron uses music to interpret the political and social experience of black people throughout the world.
In 2001 Scott-Heron was sentenced to from one to three years in prison for failing to enter a drug rehabilitation program after pleading guilty to cocaine possession in 2000.
See also Music in the United States
"BBB Interviews Gil Scott-Heron." Black Books Bulletin 6, no.3 (1979): 36–41.
Chatman, Priscilla. "Gil Scott-Heron and His Music." Black Stars 5, no. 2 (1975): 14–18.
Salaam, Kalamu ya. "Where He's Coming From: Gil Scott-Heron." Black Collegian 35 (1980): 182–190.
genette mclaurin (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005
Scott-Heron, Gil, jazz singer, songwriter, poet; b. Chicago, III., April 1, 1949. Raised in Jackson, Tenn., by his grandmother, Scott-Heron wrote novels and poetry before forming a partnership with keyboard player Brian Jackson in the early 1970s. Their music was initially percussion accompanying Scott-Heron’s spoken poetry, but the arrangements steadily grew jazzier and more complex. His reputation for provocative thought also grew, and he began to reach an audience even beyond the U.S. In 1974, the album Winter In America, which included “The Bottle,” made its creator a surprise dance floor star; a year later “Johannesburg” also was a hit. The 1970s and early 1980s were his most successful years. He had a mini-revival in the mid-1980s, when an experiment with Bill Laswell led to the song “Re-Ron.” In the mid-1990s, he made another brief comeback.
Small Talk at 125th & Lenox Ave. (1970); Pieces of a Man (1971); Free Will (1972); Winter in America (1974); TheRevolution Will Not Be Televised (1974); The First Minute of a New Day (1974); The Midnight Band (1975); From South Africa to South Carolina (1975); It’s Your World (1976); Bridges (1977); Secrets (1978); The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron (1979); 1980 (1980); Real Eyes (1980); Reflections (1981); Moving Target (1982); The Besf of Gil Scott-Heron (1984); Tates of Gil Scott-Heron and His Amnesia Express (1990); Glory—The Gil Scott-Heron Collection (1990); Minister of Information (1994); Spirits (1994).
—Music Master Jazz and Blues Catalogue/Lewis Porter