Gil Scott-Heron, the poet, soul singer and visionary, passed away Friday afternoon at the age of 62. The details of how he died were not immediately available. Scott-Heron, who was HIV positive, had battled alcohol and drug addiction for much of his life.
Scott-Heron leaves behind a complex musical legacy, an impressive discography and a series of books that deserve careful attention. He is best known for his 1970 song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a scathing attack on the anesthetizing effect of the small screen. His ability to rhyme over music with wit and charm led many people to consider his work to be a progenitor of rap, but there was much more to his music.
Scott-Heron sang in a rich baritone that conveyed passion, urgency and warmth. Whether in tribute to jazz greats, as in “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” or about the ravages of alcoholism in “The Bottle,” Scott-Heron’s singing was unique and deep. His searing prose in “Comment #1” was sampled by Kanye West for the song “Who Will Survive in America?” on West’s 2010 My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album. In addition, Scott-Heron published several books, including Now and Then: The Poems of Gil Scott-Heron and The Vulture, a novel.
Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago April 1, 1949, and he grew up in Jackson, Tenn. He went to high school in the Bronx, N.Y., and briefly attended college in Pennsylvania. His big break came early in his career when he began working with legendary jazz producer Bob Thiele.
Scott-Heron’s records often had a political or socially conscious edge, and he frequently skewered targets like Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in spoken-word pieces like “The H2Ogate Blues.” From 1970 until 1982, Scott-Heron created a consistently vital and provocative series of recordings for Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label, followed up by work for Clive Davis’ Arista Records. Then Scott-Heron began to retreat, burdened by personal troubles.
In the summer of 1991, when I interviewed him between sets at the Blue Note in New York City, Scott-Heron’s complexity was apparent. He surprised me twice, once by defending Clarence Thomas on the grounds that “self-determination means that everyone gets to choose who they want to be rather than be who other people want them to be.“ He also noted that he was no fan of rap music. He shrugged it off as a generational thing. “My parents didn’t like my music, even though I felt it was in the tradition of what they listened to. I feel the same way about rap.“ During the interview, he chain-smoked marijuana.
Scott-Heron returned to recording in 1994 with a song “Message to the Messengers,“ where he advised rappers to use their newfound power in the mainstream judiciously and a fine recording, “Spirits“ (TVT). Then he all but vanished for more than 15 years.
Scott-Heron revealed in a 2008 interview with New York magazine that he had contracted HIV after years of battling drug and alcohol addictions. He was jailed on drug-possession charges in 2001 and 2007. In 2010 he returned with a short but moving work, “I’m New Here“ (XL Recordings). During interviews for a profile in the New Yorker in August 2010 by Alec Wilkinson, Scott-Heron repeatedly smoked crack.
Scott-Heron was right about the role of self-determination in our destinies, but an artist’s legacy is left to his constituency. There have been scores of artists whose careers were marred by drug abuse, but no one who could write poetry and songs with so much social awareness and political bite as Scott-Heron. And no one could sing them with such depth and passion. His artistic legacy is far too great for the sordid details of his final decades to ruin.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.
See The Root‘s photo slide show Top 10 Socially Conscious Songs of 2010 to learn about the contributions of Gil Scott-Heron and others to that year’s music with a message.