Remembering Gil Scott-Heron: Activist and Musical Legend

DJ Davey D recounts the pioneering artist's musical, political and cultural legacy.

By Jamilah King May 31, 2011

Legendary artist Gil Scott-Heron was, by many accounts, a pioneering genius. Largely considered one of the progenitors of modern hip-hop, he was an artist that transcended both genre and medium to speak truth to power, and leaves behind a vast body of work that includes poems, albums and novels. So when it was announced late last Friday that the man mostly known for his song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" had died at the tender age of 62, may admirers were left grappling with what to make of a man who for decades had shown both strength and vulnerability to his fans.

To be sure, his influence was skewed in later years by his very public personal battles. While many high-profile figures keep their demons locked away from the public eye, Scott-Heron shared his long battle with cocaine addiction, his time in and out of prison, and later, his battle against HIV. In recent years, be bounced back and teamed up with younger artists like Mos Def to perform at Carnegie Hall, and released his last album "I’m New Here" to rave reviews in 2010.

Longtime Bay Area-based DJ and hip-hop historian Davey D says it’s that sort of candidness that makes Scott-Heron’s work so important. His battles weren’t his along, but a powerful and sometimes grave reflection of the struggles faced by millions of black people in America and across the globe. We caught up with Davey D to talk about what can be learned from Gil’s rich musical legacy. Davey’s also set to air his own Gil Scott-Heron tribute through Monday, May 31 on his show "Hard Knock Radio" on 94.1 KPFA. Tune in for more.

On Gil Scott-Heron’s legacy:

First of all, let me say this: Gil Scott-Heron is somebody who’s transcended a number of generations and he’s transcended a number of genres. He wasn’t quite blues, even though he described himself as a blues-ologist. He wasn’t quite jazz even though many people associated him with that. And he was a predecessor to rap, so he wasn’t really in that particular generation, though people could reference them.

On politics:

I think Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets described Gil as being "a prince that was on his own." And I have to agree with that. He was a man who cut his own cloth. Blazed his own path and had impact in all these different arenas. The biggest impact that Gil really had was that he was one of those people who used his talent and his visibility and fame to speak truth to power unashamedly.

One of the things that people forget is that he spoke on a number of subjects. Some artists, maybe they’ll speak out against the police. But they won’t say anything about immigration. They might speak out on immigration, but they’ll never say anything about misogyny, or with any consistency. If there was something that needed to be spoken on, he spoke on it very frankly, very earnestly, and with a lot of conviction.

I’m listening to his song about the coal miners, how many artists today — black artists — talk about the coal miners? He was on the first to speak out against South African Apartheid. He did that in ’75 with "(What’s the Word? Johannesburg)," which incidentally was banned in South Africa.

On his substance abuse:

I guess the in many ways he was a Renaissance Man. They don’t look at him that way because of his substance abuse problems, which he was very public about. I think even that deserves some sort of credibility because how many would really take your addiction to heroin and then do a song like "Home is Where the Hatred Is?" How many people are gonna do a song like "Angel Dust at a time when people were getting strung out on that from coast to coast.

How many people are gonna talk about the bottle and really speak in a way that people can go ‘that is my life.’ He wasn’t trying to hide it. As an artist who’s willing to smash on the system that was oppressing us, he was also willing to show a lot of vulnerability, a lot of compassion, a lot of love.

What younger artists can learn:

I said before, he’s a Renaissance Man. We don’t see him in the light that we see somebody like a Paul Robeson or a Harry Belafonte. People who do records, they do shows, they write books. They do a little bit of it all. I think Gil is one of those people, he was definitely one of those people that was able to do that. It’s a reflection of him being well read. He wasn’t somebody who learned to freestyle through life but he learned to improvise, as a result of somebody who was well-studied, well-steeped in these multiple traditions.

I think a lot of us get it confused. We think we’ll just show up and our talent will pull us. No, that’s called making up stuff on the spot. That might get you over the first couple of times, but after I see your act once of twice, it gets old. When you improvise, that means you have a deep wealth of knowledge. You can not come off the top, but you can dig into the well of that information and resource and talent and you can go in multiple directions.

Influence on Black Music:

Gil Scott-Heron was influenced by the Last Poets. He never shied away from that, he talked about it, and it’s very important. Even when you look at "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", if I remember correctly, that song is based upon a poem that the Last Poets did. And he took it to another level. That’s how black music is made. Black music is like we rip and vamp. I hear what you do, I snatch a little bit, I eat it, and then I add my own flavor to it. We build off it. Part of that is how we’re able to pass along culture and tradition from one generation to the next.

The fact that you don’t hear Gil Scott-Heron on urban stations, even on the adult ones, other than "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" — speaks volumes. It means that we’re losing parts of our musical heritage to corporations and ignorance. People that don’t care. And so when you listen to what is being created, in some ways you have large bodies of people that aren’t making that connection to things that are bigger than them. Shame on those who are in a position and know better but don’t do better. Gil would have stepped up, and he did step up.