Rethinking Gil Scott-Heron's legacy

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Gil Scott-Heron
  • Gil Scott-Heron

"When a wise elder dies, a great library has been burnt to the ground."

I was reminded of this West African proverb when I first heard about the death of Gil Scott-Heron exactly two years ago. His death at age 62, shouldn't have been a great shock: Scott-Heron had publicly struggled with addiction issues for years and disclosed his HIV positive status in 2008. But for those of us who followed his work, the announcement hit hard.

Maybe it was because he was on the verge of a major comeback, having freshly released his first new album in sixteen years. But there was also a sense that a particularly unique flame of knowledge had been permanently extinguished.

He's best known for his 1974 anthem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a heady blend of spoken word and funk that laid the foundation for hip-hop music. The track epitomizes Scott-Heron's potent ability to critique societal ills.

I spoke with DJ Rasul Mowatt, a professor at IU Bloomington's School of Public Health, who suggested we take a deeper look at Scott-Heron's activism and the roots of his debilitating addiction struggles. Mowatt will be spinning at Old Soul Entertainment's tribute to Gil Scott-Heron on May 29th at the Jazz Kitchen. The evening will feature a variety of musicians, singers and spoken word artists performing music form the Scott-Heron catalog.

DJ Rasul Mowatt
  • DJ Rasul Mowatt

NUVO: Why was it important to you to be involved with this tribute?

Rasul Mowatt: I think it's important for those of us in the arts to recognize those who made an impact on the way we think about culture and society and Gil Scott-Heron is one of those individuals. When he died in 2011 he was not as well known as he was in the midpoint of his life, but his body of work is still having an impact on people today.

Whether he was playing in a blues, jazz or R&B style, the lyrical content was always squarely focused on mainstream society's relationship to race and poverty. That meant a lot to me personally. Even if you enjoy a wide range of music, there may not be a lot of artists that relate to where you're at politically. I appreciate listening to Wu-Tang for example, but they don't touch on issues that are important to me with the clarity of Gil Scott-Heron. Marvin Gaye, who was in some ways a contemporary of his, was similar. An incredible artist and an icon, but his body of work doesn't consistently touch on matters that are important to me personally.

NUVO: Gil Scott-Heron didn't create many songs for the dancefloor. What's your approach to spinning at this event?

Mowatt: My job as the DJ is to create a vibe or feel. So what I'm going to do is to try to recreate the feel of his era and reference other musicians like the Last Poets who were dealing with similar issues. These musicians weren't making songs like people do now, they were involved in what was happening and their music reflected that.

NUVO: What do you think Gil Scott-Heron's legacy is?

Mowatt: I think it's important that we view him as more than a musician. We should see him in the same vein as Fela, Bob Marley or Bob Dylan. They were journalists without a newspaper. They were all about using music as a vehicle for social commentary. They used music to bring that commentary to life. Gil Scott-Heron should be viewed in the same way. If we only view him as a performing artist we get caught up in the music of his social commentary and lose sight of the actual message.

It's easy to be political in your content as an artist. But it's different to be actually engaged in doing things that relate to what your commenting about. He was speaking not only from observation, but his involvement in the issues of his day. I think that's something artists need to connect to. Some artists may attempt to imitate him; they may sample his music to evoke his presence. But very rarely do you see artists imitate him in his actual involvement in important issues.

Also, Gil Scott-Heron represents to me a warning of the toll it takes on a person to engage in social criticism, particularly in relation to race and poverty. It takes an emotional and psychological toll. His drug addiction is quite well known, but the reasons for his drug addiction are not as widely known. If you understand the content of his music, not only was he a person experiencing racism as a black man in the United States but he was involved in a critique of it. To be always aware of how bad things are can really wear on a person.

It's time for us to look at his conflict. His body was worn out from years of drug abuse, but we need look at his drug addiction as a byproduct of his connection to and concern for the issues he was dealing with. This event is timely in that sense, as the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) just came out this week. In DSM-5 they finally begin to have a discussion dealing with the effects of racism, which fall squarely within general anxiety disorder but can also be linked to some effects of post traumatic stress disorder. He was suffering mentally from issues of racism as the DSM-5 now recognizes.

Gil Scott-Heron was troubled. We know there was an outpouring of drugs to artists and activists in the '70s - but why? Because there was a propensity to look toward drugs because you were distraught every day confronting the problems you were trying to resolve. For every one person you think you saved, you probably lost ten others. That took a toll, and people turned to alcohol and drugs. We need to somehow recognize that as opposed to viewing him as another victim of drug addiction.


Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection features the best of Gil Scott-Heron.

1. Gil Scott-Heron - The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
2. Gil Scott-Heron - Home is Where the Hared Is
3. Gil Scott-Heron - Lady Day and John Coltrane
4. Gil Scott-Heron - Paint it Black
5. Gil Scott-Heron - Peace Go With You Brother
6. Gil Scott-Heron - Winter in America
7. Gil Scott-Heron - Did You Hear What They Said
8. Gil Scott-Heron - Rivers of my Fathers
9. Gil Scott-Heron - Who'll Pay Reparations For My Soul
10. Gil Scott-Heron - The Bottle (live)
11. Gil Scott-Heron - It's Your World
12. Gil Scott-Heron - Ain't No Such Thing As Superman
13. Gil Scott-Heron - Johannesburg
14. Gil Scott-Heron - South Carolina
15. Gil Scott-Heron - We Almost Lost Detroit
16. Gil Scott-Heron - The Summer of '42
17. Gil Scott-Heron - Not Needed
18. Gil Scott-Heron - Under the Hammer
19. Gil Scott-Heron - A Legend in His Own Mind
20. Gil Scott-Heron - The Klan
21. Gil Scott-Heron - Angel Dust
22. Gil Scott-Heron - Alien (Hold on to Your Dreams)
23. Gil Scott-Heron - 1980
24. Gil Scott-Heron - Shut 'Um Down
25. Gil Scott-Heron - Gun
26. Gil Scott-Heron - Inner City Blues
27. Gil Scott-Heron - Is That Jazz?
28. Gil Scott-Heron - Fast Lane
29. Gil Scott-Heron - Message to the Messengers
30. Gil Scott-Heron - Me and the Devil
31. Gil Scott-Heron - New York is Killing Me
32. Gil Scott-Heron - I'll Take Care of You
33. Gil Scott-Heron - Spirits Past
34. Gil Scott-Heron - Beginnings (First Minute of A New Day)

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