On May 27, 2011 Gil Scott-Heron died, just a few months short of his 63rd birthday. His passing seemed to be so much more than the death of another celebrity or talented artist. For me, and for so many others, it seems like a long-time friend died – a friend that I knew but now wish that I had known better.
Gil Scott-Heron was a fabulous artist, but he was more than an artist. He gave a clear and vibrant voice to a generation that was coming of age in the early 1970’s. For forty years his brilliant commentary tracked the passage of time and events from the inner conflicts of the civil rights era to Watergate to the struggle against apartheid to the struggles that take place in each and every human heart.
His obituary will chronicle his novels, his teaching as a university professor and his legendary body of work as a singer, musician, performer and above all, an artist. His words conveyed truths that needed to be told four decades ago and need to be told four minutes from now. The wit, intelligence and poetry with which Gil Scott-Heron conveyed the truth made it more accessible and more memorable for those fortunate enough to sip from the cup of his artistry.
There have been statements to the effect that Gil Scott-Heron was the “Godfather of Rap”, a title he vehemently rejected. Clearly the title is based on a facile appreciation of his work – it was so much more than combining words that were spoken (or sung) with music. That combination has been with us since our ancestors explored the caves and crevices of the Olduvai Gorge.
But listen to bold spirit of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and the tearstained heart that is given a voice in “I’ll Take Care of You” (from his last album) and you realize that he was so much more than godfather of anything. He was an original talent who found a way to help us understand his message as well as the voices in our own hearts.
Gil Scott-Heron was unconventional in so many ways. He never fit through the “Needle’s Eye” about which he sang as a young genius. But one of the reasons that genius is so rare is that it is rarely appreciated in its own time. He made choices with his art that were not “commercial”, only brilliant. He made choices with his own life that some decried as self-destructive, yet he continued to create magic until he died.
Thanks to technology his voice will live on and my son and his friends and children will have the privilege of listening to Gil Scott- Heron and finding the truth that is in his words, the brilliance that is in their own souls and the power that is in their hands.
Pain and pleasure are entwined in our lives from birth to death. Today I am pained at the thought of the death of Gil Scott-Heron. Today I am pleased to have been able to have the person and the artist known as Gil Scott-Heron in my life for almost four decades.
He never fit through the needle’s eye. Magicians rarely do, and for that we should be thankful.