Sunday Livin’: Gil Scott-Heron

Image Credit: Olivier Lestoquoit

Gil Scott-Heron–poet, musician–died this week at the age of 62.

Via NPR:

Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949. He spent his early years in Jackson, Tenn., attended high school in The Bronx, and spent time at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University before settling in Manhattan. His recording career began in 1970 with the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, which featured the first version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The track has since been referenced and parodied extensively in pop culture.

Scott-Heron continued to record through the 1970s and early ’80s, before taking a lengthy hiatus. He briefly returned to the studio for 1994’s Spirits. That album featured the track “Message to the Messengers,” in which Scott-Heron cautions the hip-hop generation that arose in his absence to use its newfound power responsibly. He has been cited as a key influence by many in the hip-hop community — such as rapper-producer Kanye West, who closed his platinum-selling 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with a track built around a sample of Scott-Heron’s voice.

Scott-Heron struggled publicly with substance abuse in the 2000s, and spent the early part of the decade in and out of jail on drug possession charges. He began performing again after his release in 2007, and in 2010 released a new album, I’m New Here, to widespread critical acclaim.

In this episode of the PBS series The 90s, the director, Skip Blumberg, asks Scott-Heron about whether “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” has meaning in a new era:

The last time I heard Scott-Heron’s voice it was on Kanye’s lastest album, My Dark Twisted Fantasy

…and I remember marveling over the way hip hop & poetry, music & politics continue to wrap around each other.  But his own work was always so poignant!  If you are interested, Mashable posted a very nice videoshow in his memory.

Scott-Heron’s death makes me wonder, not for the first time, what it means to be a genius and be black in this world.  Heron was HIV-positive and addicted to crack cocaine.  And he wrote timeless pieces that outlined the parameters of culture, politics & revolt and spanned now three generations.  He isn’t the first either drug addicted, HIV-positive, cancer battling, alcoholic, manic depressive or otherwise tortured genius the world will ever see, not by a long shot.  But I am so bothered.  Because…it seems like pain is the common denominator behind all of our prophets.  And it makes me want to wrap my arms around them and hold them close and protect them from everything that would disabuse them of their greatness.  But if I did…would that ruin their talent?  Does pain have to mean art all the time?

I’m sorry there is nothing very coherent here.  I look forward to hearing other thoughts and reading the articles that are sure to circulate on Monday as the blogosphere reflects on his life.

For my part, I’m distraught every time an archive dies and saddened by what our brethren did not have a chance to teach us.  This is the importance of #AncestorWork

I think I’ll take my Sunday Livin’ with a nice dose of meditation.  I’ll light a candle.

Rest in peace, sir.  Cue the outro…


Kismet Nuñez is one of the Skillsharers of the of the 3rd Annual INCITE! Shawty Got Skillz workshop at the 2011 Allied Media Conference!  Help us get to Detroit!  Click here!


2 thoughts on “Sunday Livin’: Gil Scott-Heron

  1. “drug addicted, HIV-positive, cancer battling, alcoholic, manic depressive or otherwise tortured”

    GSH self medicated….have respect.

    • Indeed he did. But I don’t think it is disrespectful to note the ways that artists self-medicate. Or note that this may be a sign of broader problems in our society (racism) and in how we treat artists (funding, resources, respect, etc.)

      Nor do I think we should glorify the act or reality of all of these issues and the impact they have on an artist’s life & memory. It is a problem that GSH isn’t still with us today. What I am interested in is how we can start to trade genius for health in mind & body…and vice versa.

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