Revolution has long been a favorite theme for musicians. John Lennon weighed in on the subject, as did The Clash. But no musical composition to date had the impact that musician/street poet Gil Scott-Heron's did when he told a complacent middle-class American audience in 1970 that the revolution would not be televised. "You will not be able to stay home, brother; plug in, turn on, cop out and skip out for beer during commercials," he told them. "The revolution will be live."
Throughout his career, Scott-Heron has been a rabble rouser with his poetry and his music. In order to achieve that goal, the singer/poet/pianist expressed his thoughts in a language the average man on the street could relate to. "We weren't trying to upgrade academics or intellectuals, they already had an education," Scott-Heron says from his NYC home. "I think Malcolm X was a great example. The way he talked to people was the way he had come to understand their community. If he had only been talking to people who had an academic background he wouldn't have had the appeal he had."
Through 20 records, "a bunch of books" and several volumes of his street poetry, since 1970, Scott-Heron has commented on society's ills and offered common sense solutions to many. "Revolution" inspired generations of rappers, but the man credited as being the godfather of rap did not bestow his blessing on all of his followers. In 1994's "Message to the Messengers," he berated rappers for their treatment of women, "What I'm speakin' on now is the raps about the women folks/On one song she's your African Queen on the next one she's a joke."
He's a bit more tolerant of rap these days. "A lot of young people are still trying to find their voice," the poet/pianist says. "They're pushing their egos, they're trying to find out who they are. I think we should let them develop."
Though they may have been inspired by his spoken word work, few rappers made any effort to emulate the quality of music with which Scott-Heron backed his street poetry. "I played piano before I wrote poems," he says. "Music is a glove for the hand."
A trained pianist, Scott-Heron used top-of-the-line jazz musicians to back his compositions. Scott-Heron's band often featured bassist Ron Carter (Miles Davis, James Brown, A Tribe Called Quest) funky soul stickman Bernard Purdie (Aretha Franklin, B.B. King,) and Jazz Crusaders' flautist Hubert Laws.
Heron has been out of action for awhile, imprisoned for a year on drug charges. Since his release last year, he's been working on a new record. "I'm doing some covers from different people's tunes I enjoy and appreciate as well as some different versions of the things I wrote originally to show people how they were written and how they were put together."
Even though he says he isn't political, he's still outspoken on the country's ills. "We're disrespecting people, we're not sharing the influence that we have, we're trying to overwhelm people with the military attitude that we're taking," he says of the current administration's policies.
Scott-Heron is quick to point out that many of the ideas he expresses didn't originate with him. "What we have tried to do over the body of our work is present ideas that people can go and do some research on them and find out about these folks and develop their own attitudes," he says.
He cites as inspirations Fanny Lou Hamer, Mississippi civil-rights activist known for what became her epitaph: "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired"; tennis player Arthur Ashe, who crusaded relentlessly against apartheid in South Africa and was an outspoken AIDS activist; and actor Paul Robeson, who was speaking out internationally in the 1940s against racism in the South, as people who did tremendous things for the community, but who he says were largely ignored. "Those are folks that had good ideas that other people didn't take advantage of. That's what freedom is, being able to be exposed to all these different ideas and take the ones that you want," he says. "As long as it's progressive and positive, makes no difference who had it first."
Despite his tremendous influence on music and society, Scott-Heron remains modest abut his accomplishments. "I'm a piano player from Tennessee," he says. "I hope some folks come over and take look at what we're trying to do."
Gil Scott-Heron will be at The Neighborhood Theatre on July 3 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door.