Although Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949 to mother, Bobbie Scott-Heron, an opera singer and father, Gil Heron, it was his maternal grandmother, Miss Lily, in Tennessee who raised him and imbibed in him his ‘wokeness’ which reflected his life’s work for which he was hailed as well as castigated.
Scott-Heron’s father was a Jamaican footballer who became the first black man to play for Glasgow Celtic FC in 1951 nicknamed ‘The Black Arrow’. His mother was a librarian who also performed with the New York Oratorio Society. Given love’s transient nature, his parents divorced, and so Miss Lily raised him aged only 18 months.
Scott-Heron himself became a poet, jazz singer-songwriter, author and rap music pioneer in the 1970s and 80s. It was Miss Lily, a religious lady, who exposed him to gospel music and the piano. However, by eight, Gil had taken a liking to the blues he listened to on a Memphis radio station and mimicked what he heard on his piano.
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His grandma also introduced him to Black consciousness via “the literary artistry and social activism of Langston Hughes.”
When Miss Lily passed away in 1962 when he was 12, his mother came for him, relocating to a Bronx apartment. Scott-Heron excelled in writing courses at DeWitt Clinton High School and earned an academic scholarship to the elite Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale where he was one of five African Americans in a class of 100.
His next academic station was Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Soon, he blossomed as a musician and activist and formed the Black and Blues band with fellow Lincoln student Brian Jackson.
Scott-Heron came to the attention of many with his provocative novel The Vulture (1970) and The Nigger Factory (1971). By 1972, he had earned a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University.
By 1975, he had been signed to Arista Records, the first artist on the mega label. This was after he had recorded with small labels. Scott-Heron together with Stevie Wonder campaigned intensively, touring the country to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday in 1983.
Hip Hop artists love and respect him. It is documented that The Roots, Mos Def, Queen Latifah, Common, Talib Kweli, Tribe Called Quest, Blackalicious, and Kanye West performed with Scott-Heron and/or remade some of his songs.
His music “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Whitey On The Moon,” “Me and The Devil,” remain relevant even today. Other classics including “Johannesburg,” “The Bottle,” “Angel Dust,” “Winter In America,” “Save The Children,” among others, appear on TV programs and in Hollywood films such as Power, Scandal, Black Lightening, Homeland, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, and Black Panther.
As BlackPast writes: “The electric, edgy, angry sounds he created with his fusion of soul, jazz, blues, and poetry—often in collaboration with musician Brian Jackson—made him a forerunner to a later generation of rap artists, particularly such socially conscious rappers as Tupac Shakur, Jay Z and Dr. Dre.”
Scott-Heron, often called the “Godfather of Rap”, spoke truth to power and held Africa and African emancipation as a priority, describing his music as “Bluesology”, “Midnight Music” or as “Third World Music.”
The protest singer and poet, who described himself as the “minister of information,” set about entertaining and educating, through song, worried about American pop culture and its chief agent, television.
“You will not be able to stay home, brother,” Scott-Heron warns in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, his popular 1970 poem. “You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out,” he adds.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 1976 called him “one of the most interesting new leaders of the black cause in America today.”
He sang about issues in America, Africa and Asia as well as elsewhere. He protested the U.S. war in Vietnam and drew attention to happenings in Zimbabwe, El Salvador, Namibia and Poland.
His 1976 hit song Johannesburg “woke Americans up to what was happening in South Africa and what people in the US could do to help defeat apartheid.”
Along the way, he was targeted by the FBI and CIA which viewed Scott-Heron as a dangerous revolutionary and when corporate bodies shied away from him, Scott-Heron made do with performing on college campuses and in tiny venues, selling a few thousand records. His long-time record company eventually dropped him.
And this was when Scott-Heron became addicted to crack cocaine. Between 2001 and 2007, he was arrested several times on drug possession charges and jailed.
He produced three children with three women. Scott-Heron died aged 62, on May 27, 2011, in a New York hospital, after struggling with addiction.
In 2012, he posthumously received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and two years later was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”