Gil Scott-Heron was a controversial poet and songwriter whose willingness to undeniably speak the truth, laid the foundation for future socially conscious artists.
Who was Gil Scott Heron?
In the city of Chicago, Gil Scott-Heron was born on April 1, 1948. He was born to his mother, Bobbie Scott-Heron who worked as a librarian and a Jamaican soccer player, Giles Heron. At a young age, Scott-Heron had to suffer through the divorce of his parents. As a result of this, he was sent to live with his grandmother in Tennessee. He was then chosen to attend a new integration school. In the 1950’s racism was still extremely prominent and segregation had yet to be abolished. Becoming increasingly intolerant of constantly being at the center of racial abuse, Scott-Heron moved in with his mother in the Bronx, where he attended high school. He later attended Lincoln University, however, he dropped out after his first year. Instead of finishing at the University, he decided to invest in his hopes of pursuing a career in writing. In his first and only year, he did, however, meet Brian Jackson who would go on to be a collaborator on many pieces of work that Scott-Heron produced. He would then go on to receive an M.A in creative writing from John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
During his time in New York, he became inspired by the long-lasting effect of artists from the Harlem Renaissance such as famous poet, Langston Hughes. By studying their works, he was able to develop his own creative writing style. At the age of 13, he had written his first collection of poems. By 1968, at the ripe age of 19, He released his first novel which he titled The Vulture. This book received a lot of attention as it discussed the ways in which drugs ripped through urban black communities. As this novel continued to grab the attention of America, Scott-Heron became increasingly popular. The publishing company that published Scott-Heron’s book also had a deal with Flying Dutchman Records. This is where he met Bob Thiele, a music producer who took interest in Scott-Heron and was able to persuade him to begin a music career.
As young as 13 years old, Scott-Heron had completed his first collection of poems. As referenced before, his novel, The Vulture, was published in 1968. In the years to come, he would publish another novel titled The Nigger Factory. The main focus of this novel is the clashes between beliefs that are founded in different cultural backgrounds.
After signing with Bob Thiele and Flying Dutchman Records, Scott-Heron produced his very first album titled Small Talk at 125th and Lennox. This debut album included the hit song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. This song was seen as very controversial because it drew attention to the ignorance White America and called them out on their unwillingness to take action against the issues that plagued the American system. This album gave Scott-Heron the foundation that he needed to produce more albums. After he and Brian Jackson came out with their third album, Pieces of a Man, they decided to leave Flying Dutchman Records in hopes of moving to a company that would allow them to keep their publishing.
With just as little as $4,000 in their pockets, Brian Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron moved to Silver Spring, Maryland. This is where they recorded their 4th album titled Winter in America. In order to release this album they had to pair up with Strata East Label who released the Album and gave them 85% of their publishings. This album became an addition to the numerous successful albums created by Scott-Heron and Jackson. He went on to produce songs based on real experiences that he had. His albums to come would showcase the complexities of real life issues.
In 1975, Scott-Heron moved to Artista, where he released the albums First Minute Of A New Day and From South Africa To South Carolina. His collaborator and friend, Brian Jackson, had left the record label in 1978, leaving Scott-Heron’s music career susceptible to change.
In the 1980’s, Scott-Heron directed his political anger toward president Ronald Raegan. His attacks against the former president stemmed from his hatred toward his conservative and unfair policies. In 1985, Artista dropped Scott-Heron. Although he would reappear and release his album Spirits in 1993, he stopped recording songs during the intermediate period. During this time, he was convicted of drug charges and also struggled with a cocaine addiction.
Further down the line, in 2011, Scott-Heron had signed with another record label and released two albums: I’m New Here and a remix of the original album, We’re New Here. That same year would mark the death of the famous Gil Scott Heron.
Gil Scott-Heron could be considered an extremely controversial artist. His spoken word pieces as well as many of his musical pieces consisted of content that exposed the true nature of the White American belief system.
His most well-known piece of work was a song from his first album “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. This, as well as many of his other pieces of work, is a prime example of a way in which he combined rhythmic elements with creative writings and poetry. The deconstruction of this song can set the tone for the rest of his pieces and his attitude toward political issues.
“The revolution will not be televised, brother
There will be no pictures of you and Willie Mae
Pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run
Or trying to slide that color TV into a stolen ambulance
NBC will not be able to predict the winner at 8:32
Or report from 29 districts
The revolution will not be televised
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers in the instant replay
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young
Being run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy Wilkins
Strolling through Watts
In a Red, Black and Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the right occasion
Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction
Will no longer be so Goddamn relevant
And women will not care if Dick finally screwed Jane on Search for Tomorrow
Because Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day”
In this specific verse from the song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Scott-Heron makes an effort to list all of the mindless activities that consume people’s daily lives. Essentially, he is working to convey a message that says that the “revolution” has to come as a spiritual awakening. It can only come from within. The idea is that once the vast majority of people begin to realize what is wrong with the system, the “revolution” can finally take place. This theme continued to persist throughout the rest of Scott-Heron’s discography.
Gil Scott-Heron is known in the mainstream media as a singer/songwriter. However, he could also be categorized as a poet and political activist. As discussed above, many of his works highlighted the institutionalized discrimination that ran rampid through the American system. He was socially active and used his work to promote ideologies that were seen as derogative at the time.
He reiterated the spoken word of great influential leaders including Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. He used his platform to reveal issues that targeted the black community and push the boundaries that confined black Americans to the racist stereotypes. His ability to intertwine funky/afro beats and poetry so effortlessly is what made his music so distinct at the time. By doing this, he was able to set the tone for future artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Jay Z to build their rap careers off of.
- Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
- Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
- Louis Armstrong
- Langston Hughes
- John Coltrane
- Nina Simone
- Miles Davis
- Michael Jackson
- Brian Jackson
- Dianna Ross
- James Brown
- The Spinners
After a great deal of research has been conducted, it is safe to make the assumption that Gil Scott Heron was a large contributing factor in the creation of Hip Hop and Rap. His sheer love for making music poked holes in the fabric of society and prompted people to strive for a level of political awakening that was condemned by White America at the time.
Bush, John. “Gil Scott-Heron Biography, Songs, & Albums.” AllMusic, https://www.allmusic.com/artist/gil-scott-heron-mn0000658346/biography.
Gaither, Larvester. “Giving Back to the Community 1996: An Interview with Gil Scott-Heron.” The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online), vol. 9, no. 10, 2016, pp. 311-316. ProQuest, https://login.ezproxy.auctr.edu:2050/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/giving-back-community-1996-interview-with-gil/docview/1858249663/se-2.
Hamilton, Jack. “Pieces of a Man.” Transition, no. 106, 2011, pp. A112-A126,A168. ProQuest, https://login.ezproxy.auctr.edu:2050/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/pieces-man/docview/2634048422/se-2.
McClure, Daniel R. “”Who Will Survive in America?”: Gil Scott-Heron, the Black Radical Tradition, and the Critique of Neoliberalism.” National Political Science Review, vol. 17, no. 2, 2015, pp. 3-26. ProQuest, https://login.ezproxy.auctr.edu:2050/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/who-will-survive-america-gil-scott-heron-black/docview/1747344864/se-2.
Phalafala, Uhuru P. “Of Worlds Black and Red: South Africa’s Poet Laureates and their World-Making Networks.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 50, no. 3, 2019, pp. 116-135. ProQuest, https://login.ezproxy.auctr.edu:2050/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/worlds-black-red-south-africas-poet-laureates/docview/2415031190/se-2, doi:https://doi.org/10.2979/reseafrilite.50.3.09.
Samuels, contributed by: Wilfred D. “Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011) •.” •, 27 Nov. 2022, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/scott-heron-gil-1949/.
Soul, Free. “Gil Scott Heron the Revolution Will Not Be Televised 2003 Documentary by Don Letts for BBC.” YouTube, YouTube, 13 Aug. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p37iZ3o5k2Y.