Gil Scott–Heron on UK tour in support of new album I'm New Here
Polemicist, ex-prisoner, poet – Gil Scott–Heron’s spoken word diatribes are charged with political passion and fused with jazz, proto-rap and blues rhythms. As he arrives in Scotland, Paul Dale traces a life lived politically
Between the moon and New York City, between Langston Hughes and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, between the blues and hip hop, there will only ever be one Gil Scott-Heron. Born in Chicago and schooled in Tennessee and later the Bronx, where his mother lived, Scott-Heron attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania before moving back to New York to begin his recording career. From an early age his talent was always for achieving a strong political voice, couched in an observational style.
Impassioned by art and literature thanks to his civil-rights activist Southern grandmother, Scott-Heron absorbed the intellectual tenets of the negritude movement (a post-war radical acknowledgement of a common black African inheritance and destiny among French-educated black intellectuals) as exemplified by the then President of Senegal, LS Senghor, poet and French politician Aimé Césaire and political critic Frantz Fanon. At the same time as Jean Paul Sartre was advocating the negritude movement, and novelist Nelson Algren was writing about the dispossessed sons of the depression (in his own words, ‘the drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts, prize fighters, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums’), Scott-Heron was figuring out that it may be time for a new Black Orpheus. He imagined a poetic voice empowered not by romance but by the urban mythologies contained in the poetry of Langston Hughes, the fragile passions of writer James Baldwin’s black characters, the fundamental rhetoric of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, Paul Robeson’s baritone Marxism and most of all by President Nixon’s ‘benign neglect policy’ (and its all too real effect on alcohol and drug addictions in poor black communities) towards what Nixon called ‘the colour problem’.
It’s little wonder that the beginning of Scott-Heron’s creative output was marked in both the song and novel forms. Two years at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University – America’s first degree-granting historically black university – resulted in his first collaborations with long-time soulmate and musician Brian Jackson and two novels: The Vulture and his remarkable dissection of university politics The Nigger Factory (both recently reissued for the second time by Edinburgh’s Canongate Books). His college band with Jackson, Black & Blues, finally yielded an album. 1970’s Small Talk at 125th and Lennox was a combination of soothsayer declaration, husky intonation and agit-prop politics. To the stripped-back accompaniment of congas and light percussion, Scott-Heron took no prisoners as he dismantled the disease of mass consumerism, tepid black self-empowerment, homophobia and the white liberal classes in songs ‘Whitey on the Moon’, ‘The Subject was Faggots’ and ‘Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul’.
Raw passion and talent along with political and economic inquiry spurred Scott-Heron on to produce as many albums as years in the coming decade, some of them masterpieces (Winter in America, From South Africa to South Carolina), some interesting experiments in form (Pieces of a Man, The First Minute of a New Day, Moving Target). A hiatus followed in 1985 when Arista Records dropped Scott-Heron but he stayed active with the Artists United Against Apartheid. In 1993 Scott-Heron staged his first of many comebacks with the release of the album Spirits, a great and undervalued work in which Heron cogitated (most notably in the opening track ‘Message to the Messengers’) on his place in the modern-day black music scene.
From here it’s all gossip and narcotics. Addiction, imprisonment and voiceover work for those infamous Tango adverts (‘You’ve been Tangoed!’) have followed Scott-Heron like a bad smell. His Scottish fans became more obsessed with the fact that his father Gil Scott-Heron Sr. was the first black player to kick the ball for Celtic. Scott-Heron served time, didn’t turn up to gigs and had some of his tunes remixed by ecstasy and beat chewing DJs.
By 2001 he was being written off by coffin-nail-fingering music hacks in the English broadsheets and yet here we are in 2010 with a new Gil Scott-Heron album and a sell-out UK concert tour. The new LP I’m New Here is a fairly gnomic-feeling work when put alongside Heron’s back catalogue (although the muted complete remix of the album by The xx’s Jamie Smith may be something to behold) but it is still recognisably and irreversibly the work of a man who has lived his creative life by Henry David Thoreau’s dictum that ‘rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.’
PLEASE NOTE: Due to the continuing disruption to flights into the UK by volcanic ash, Gil Scott Heron has been unable to reach the UK. As a result, the scheduled concert by Gil Scott-Heron at HMV Picture House will now take place on Mon 26 Apr. New Aberdeen Warehouse date still to be confirmed.
I’m New Here is out now on XL Recordings.