May 30, 2011
Gil Scott-Heron has died at the age of 62. He was a tremendous artist, a politically conscious poet and musician, and a voice of black protest from the movement of the 1960s and ‘70s until his death. His often humorous, rhythmic lyrical style, set to rock-influenced jazz was an early influence on the rap and hip-hop of generations to follow.
Scott-Heron is best known for his song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. It was at once a satire of commercial culture and false political leaders and a call to arms for people to get involved in the fight for social change. In Whitey on the Moon, Scott-Heron again used humor to point out the contradiction between the attention given to the moon landings and the cover-up of the tremendous poverty here on Earth. It began with the famous lines, “A rat just bit my sister Nell, with Whitey on the Moon, her face and arms began to swell, with Whitey on the Moon....” It ended with the punch line, “I think I’ll send these doctor bills airmail special, ... to Whitey on the Moon.”
Scott-Heron could also be deadly serious, as in songs like Pieces of a Man, the story of a mailman delivering a layoff notice to a worker for whom the letter was the last straw, or Save the Children, a reminder that “Soon it will be their turn to try and save the world.”
Scott-Heron’s political and social commentary covered a wide spectrum. He ridiculed the growing right-wing of Ronald Reagan in songs like B Movie, and Re-Ron and spoke out against police brutality and the infringement of civil liberties in No Knock.
He wrote about the dangers of nuclear power in We Almost Lost Detroit, a song about one of the first nuclear accidents at the Fermi plant in Monroe, Michigan. The song is very apropos in the wake of the recent disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
He also celebrated black culture in songs like Lady Day and John Coltrane.
With the passing of Gil Scott-Heron, the world has lost a treasure who represented the best that American jazz, rock n’ roll and the black movement had to offer.