As I was listening to Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers last night while surfing the web, I discovered that Gil Scott Heron had died. Heron has always been an underappreciated poet, musician and cultural griot. Back in college, I was a protester, forcefully attacking injustice the way some of my fellow students vigorously assailed organic chemistry. I was a regular at The Shrine of The Black Madonna bookstore, where for the first time in my life I was able to touch actual copies of the black protest literature frequently referenced by some of the adults back in my hometown. I was deliberate in my choice of clothes, connecting myself directly to the sixties, at least in my mind, by wearing the very blazers my own father had worn back in his college days.
And then one day, a friend of mine from New Orleans asked if I had ever heard of Gil Scott Heron. I can’t remember how I answered, or what I looked like when I answered, but the expression on my friend’s face was one of incredulity. “All this protesting you do and you don’t know who Gil Scott Heron is?”
A day or so later, he located the cassette tape one of his older brothers had made for him and invited me to his room to check out The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
I have never forgotten my introduction to the persistence of the polyrhythmic drumbeats, or the eye opening lyrics, but it was Heron’s sharp edged voice, insistent and irreverent and unrelenting, that articulated a me I didn’t even know how to be yet.In retrospect, my college protesting indulged my own sense of self righteousness, especially since I harbored the same bourgeoisie aspirations most of my classmates had. I was merely “acting” like I was ready for a revolution.
Heron’s most famous piece has been transmogrified by the passage of time into an iconic emblem of the social discontent that existed in the seventies.
The first time I ever heard Gil Scott-Heron, I had no idea whom I was listening to. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” destined to remain the most popular song of his more than 25-year career, was recorded in 1974. Today, it is still a highly anthologized rare groove classic; with its fusion of percussive jazz and spoken word, it’s still in heavy rotation wherever politically conscious Afrocentrics puff on clove cigarettes while sipping coffee (or Long Island iced teas). I was in one of these spots the first time I heard the song and was instantly captivated by Heron’s delivery as much as by his message.
“The revolution will not be televised, because the revolution is gon’ be live,” Heron predicted. And I believed, although it had been twenty years since Heron first recorded those words. Many of us are still waiting for that non-televised revolution. Others put away their black power fist necklaces in exchange for gold ones. Still, during that curious period of my late adolescence, I had internalized Heron’s message without asking whom I was listening to. The message in itself was enough of a gift.
Crack cocaine seemed to claim what was left of Heron’s revolutionary spirit by the time he was middle aged. Almost everyone I’ve talked to about his death said they thought he was much older than 62. The emotional toll of having to continue to relive the ideals of his youth year after year appears to have presented a significant downside to Heron’s status as a cultural icon. And yet, even in the most recent video interviews I watched last night, there did not seem to be any despair in his eyes or any sound of regret in his voice for the some of the choices he has made in his life.
The flowers woke up bloomin’
And put on a color show just for me
The shadows dark and gloomy
I told them all to keep the hell away from me
Because I don’t feel like believin’ everything I do gon’ turn out wrong
When vibrations I’m receiving say
“Hold on, brother, just you be strong”
A Lovely Day Gil Scott Heron
Something tells me Gil Scott Heron’s funeral will not be televised.