I heard Gil Scott-Heron performing live once, in Copenhagen back in 1999 or thereabouts. It was a disheartening experience. Sitting at his keyboard, hair greasy, clothes filthy, almost falling asleep mid-song at several points, he was clearly far gone. Everyone was sitting down, even as he was performing some of his most rousing tunes. I got up to show my support, and love for songs that had taught me a lot about Black America and where rap came from. But it was heartbreaking.
Still, his voice was there, still warmly burred, deeply persuasive, behind the thick slur of years of abuse. Small comfort, but still. There was a reason why that particular voice stood out among the best of seventies protest music, despite never being distinguished in song. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Whitey on the Moon,” “H2O Gate Blues,” and all the rest are still scorching poems about a society every bit as precariously inattentive to its popular fabric, irresponsibly belligerent and chaotically disposed today as it was when Scott-Heron penned them.
Scott-Heron spoke rhymes over beats, calling for change, always conscientious and wryly funny, anticipating the best in rap. Along with the Last Poets, he provided a example of what rap can be, despite his own oft-repeated disavowal of the genre, and his own influence on it. And as late as 1994, at a point when he had all but done himself in hitting the pipe, his “Message to the Messengers” managed to be a beautiful articulation of the subaltern foundation of black music and the risk posed by losing your consciousness.
He was more than a protest writer. Though he often flirted with the bathetic, some of his best work is more personal, if still socially engaged. So much if it is about personal frailty and the dangers of losing control in a society that doesn’t care. Speaking close from home, much of his writing centered on substance abuse, and “The Bottle” remains one of the iconic songs on the subject, an impassioned cry for justice without an addressee.
Last year’s I’m New Here was a surprise. His first album in years, it seemed mostly a collection of outtakes with occasional moments of lucidity, which is pretty much what it was. But it has some great performances of very strong material. The title song sees a touching performance with Scott-Heron’s voice almost gone, yet insisting that any life can be turned around. One hopes he felt that himself, because his insistence is paper-thin.
The real moment of uplift is his equally precarious two-part love letter to the “broken home” of his childhood, a song suffused with loss, but first and foremost inspirationally expressive of love. An melancholy, but unexpectedly heartening complement to his classic, and perhaps most resonant piece of autobiography as art, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.”
“Peace go with you, brother/ Don’t seem to matter much now, just what I say”