My beloved hiphop generation came of age at that meta-moment in history when it seemed that the artists among us could only aspire to remixing what came before. Writers wanted to become the James Baldwins and Zora Neale Hurstons of our time. The neo-soul movement was chockful of wannabe Marvin Gayes. And everyone in the so-called spoken-word game — from MCs to poets — poured out libations for the Last Poets and, perhaps most of all, the late, great Gil Scott-Heron.
“Gil was our unfiltered blues, a black-magic, truth-telling poet,” says jessica Care moore, author of poetry tomes like The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth and frontwoman for her own soulful rock band, Detroit Read. “It is not easy to find models for what we do: poets that make rock’n’roll or tell our stories with flutes or loud guitars, wrapped around melodies and love,” moore says. “Gil was our witness, our foundation. Gil made what I do possible.”
As a singing, poetic rhyme spitter, Gil made what a slew of musicians have done possible: from Kanye West to Drake to Mos Def to Lauryn Hill, all the way down to Kurtis Blow on “Daydreamin’.” Pieces of a Man, Winter in America (composed with Brian Jackson, whose flute and Rhodes piano pepper most of the tracks) and other classic Scott-Heron albums laid a template for African-American and Latino writers and performers whose ambitions stretched far beyond Lower East Side poetry dives.
In the mid-1990s, poet-musician Saul Williams and I witnessed Gil Scott-Heron play a gig with his band at the downtown Manhattan club S.O.B.s. We left wondering exactly what demon drug was chasing the slack-jawed, emaciated legend down the back alleys of his own consciousness. “The Bottle,” “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” — his most insightful material — was all accounted for that night, but delivered without the light in his eyes that my parents remembered from watching him in his halcyon days of the early ’70s. We had the nerve to take him for granted, to dismiss him as a shell of his former self.
“In my very arrogant youth, I had the chance to meet and share the stage with [him] on numerous occasions,” says muMs da Schemer, a writer and actor best known for his portrayal of Poet on the HBO show Oz. “When I was young in it, I approached poetry very much like a rapper. I envisioned myself to be better than anybody, young or old. I looked at Gil as an old head past his prime. The shame of that smacked me in the nose some years later.”
Unlike Jimi Hendrix, Donny Hathaway or many other black musical shamans who shuffled off this mortal coil way before their time, Gil Scott-Heron lived long enough to be crowned the godfather of a genre full of judgmental upstarts who were able to weigh his reputation against his obvious physical and creative decline.
“I was just reading an article [about Scott-Heron] and thought how much we won’t have because he is no longer among us,” says poet Staceyann Chin, of Def Poetry Jam on Broadway and author of The Other Side of Paradise. “Then I corrected myself and was all of a sudden glad he had lived among us. He was an artist who stayed with his craft, his politics, his passion, for an entire lifetime. We should be so lucky as to have lived such a life. Long live his legacy.”— Miles Marshall Lewis is the founder of literary journal Bronx Biannual and author of two books — Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises and There’s a Riot Goin’ On. He lives in Paris.
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