In my humble opinion, a true artist is one who can take a situation, make it into art and convey an emotion or set of emotions through its presentation. I’m a big fan of making art for a purpose and the legendary Gil Scott Heron is one of the most passionate writers, songwriters and musicians that has been produced in Amerikkka – Black, Native, Latino, Asian or white – since the inception of the settler colonial slavocracy. Gil Scott Heron is known as a movement griot as well as one of the godfathers of rap music, right alongside Imam Jamil (formerly known as H. Rap Brown) and the Last Poets.
Some of my favorite Gil Scott compositions are “I Think I’ll Call It Morning,” “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” “Angel Dust,” “Winter In America,” “We Almost Lost Detroit,” “1980,” “This Can’t Be Real,” “The Bottle,” “No Knock,” “Pieces of a Man,” “Beginnings” – and this is just a few. YouTube him if you’re not up on him. Now read the words of the musical genius Gil Scott Heron, himself.
M.O.I. JR: First of all, I just want to say I appreciate the honor, man, of letting me interview you. You greatly influenced my political perspective. I grew up off of your music. I love your music to this day. And you and Tupac are two of my favorite artists. I definitely just want to give you props on that.
Gil Scott: Well, Tupac is one of my favorite people. He did me an honor by recording one of my songs.
M.O.I. JR: What song?
Gil Scott: The song “Ready for Whatever.”
M.O.I. JR: That was you originally? What song did you do to it?
Gil Scott: That was my music. When I did it, it was on the “1980” album. When he did it, he changed the name of it. That was OK with me.
M.O.I. JR: I don’t think too many people know that. I sure didn’t.
Gil Scott: Well, they need to read the liner notes; see, that’s why they put them on there.
M.O.I. JR: No doubt. But you know this is the age of getting your music online, and all of that stuff.
Gil Scott: I’m saying that they should read it line by line since they paid for it.
M.O.I. JR: For all the readers, Gil Scott Heron will be performing in San Francisco on Oct. 2. What is going to make this tour different from all the other times people may have seen you perform?
Gil Scott: I think that we have been more heard of than heard. We certainly are going to give people the chance to find out if what they heard is true. It will either confirm their criticism or convert them to another way of looking at us.
M.O.I. JR: For the people that don’t know too much about you, let’s just start all the way back.
Gil Scott: We can’t go back that far. You don’t have that long of a show.
M.O.I. JR: (laughing) Where did you come up at? I heard that you were born in Chicago; am I right?
Gil Scott: Absolutely. Born in Chicago and raised with my grandmother in Tennessee. And stayed there quite a while and moved to New York when I was a teenager.
M.O.I. JR: How did you get into music and poetry?
Gil Scott: Well, I got into both of them at different times. Like my grandmother purchased an old upright because she was interested in some of the hymns that they were going over at the Baptist church that she was a member of. And she purchased this upright and it was either $6 or $8, I’m not sure. The story would change from time to time depending on how much she was trying to tell me that we didn’t have no money.
So she bought this upright, and I learned to play a little bit, mostly by ear. I learned to read music at an early age. I became a piano player that was functional, not exceptional. But I could read music, and could play a little bit.
As far as poetry is concerned, I was introduced to Langston Hughes at an early age because he was one of my grandmother’s favorites, so she used to point out his stuff when he appeared in the Black newspapers. The Chicago Defender was the one at the time that made it all the way down to Jackson every week. And from those two points of view, the music thing on one hand and the poetry on the other hand, those were my starting points.
M.O.I. JR: How did you get into revolutionary consciousness? What inspired you to write poetry about the people’s struggle?
Gil Scott: Well, revolution is change, and change is inevitable, so you might as well direct it as opposed to just going through it.
M.O.I. JR: So when would you say? Would this be early on?
Gil Scott: I would say, as someone living in Tennessee in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, you were aware of the fact that there was some problems and there were some people who were trying to do something and you wanted to support them. See, I believed that my grandmother knew everything. The reason I believed that is because every time I asked her a question, she could answer it.
And the things that she was concerned about was the organization of the NAACP, the integrating of the school system, the changes in the economic circumstances. The fact that she would point out people like Fannie Lou Hamer and other folks who were trying to do something in that area were early sign posts that these were the people that I needed to be conscious of as well.
M.O.I. JR: It’s kind of weird that I hear you telling your story and you named groups like the NAACP and Langston Hughes and, being somebody who is much younger than you that grew up off of you, it seems like you were way more radical than what my generation would consider the tame poet and the tame organization.
Gil Scott: I think that what you need to do is go back and read about what was happening at the time of those organizations and those poets were speaking out. For the time that they were dealing in they were radical.
M.O.I. JR: So basically they were the radical voices of your period?
Gil Scott: I’m saying that everybody pushed the envelope a little bit further, because we started in chains. So you took the steps you could to help move your people forward. Like it wasn’t no sense in you running all the way down the block claiming you were leading somebody if you weren’t with them any more.
You could only lead people who follow you, and they could only follow you at a certain pace. So you modify your pace in order to encourage them to stay with you and see where you are going.
M.O.I. JR: One of your most famous tunes is “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” It is one of the most famous ones that my generation knows. What inspired you to write that piece right there? And I want to know what is the connection between, if there is any, you and the Last Poets, because they did “When the Revolution Comes” and you did “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” I’m not very clear on the time periods when both of those pieces were recorded, but you guys sound very similar. And I know that your name is often said in the same breath as their name. Can you tell us what is your relationship in particular with the Last Poets?
Gil Scott: I know all of the members of the Last Poets. As a matter of fact, we did something with the remaining Poets and the group that they are working with now about three weeks ago. I know Abiodun, and I’ve known him since college because his cousin went to Lincoln, which is where I was a student. They were recording on Douglas Records.
Introducing the Last Poets was something of a surprise to me, because the original Last Poets that I had seen first included some other members. Abiodun was the fourth poet among the originals and when the rest of the brothers broke into some other directions, he put that group together that people came to know: Umar Bin Hassan and Jalil. I followed them.
I enjoyed them. I thought that they were bringing a new sound to poetry and to the community, and I enjoyed it. They used to play at a place called the East in Brooklyn, and came out of Harlem and everybody knew about them and what they were trying to do. I was a piano player and played with different groups on piano, and the songs and poems that I had, had a musical tilt to them because they were compositions as opposed to just poems over rhythm.
We came to be known at around the same time. Their things were a cappella without music. Mine were musical and I had a band when I started, so it was a different sort of thing. But we were trying to go in the same direction.