Word up, root down
Musing on Gil Scott-Heron

By Daniel Gray-Kontar

The first time I ever heard Gil Scott-Heron, I had no idea whom I was listening to. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," destined to remain the most popular song of his more than 25-year career, was recorded in 1974. Today, it is still a highly anthologized rare groove classic; with its fusion of percussive jazz and spoken word, it's still in heavy rotation wherever politically conscious Afrocentrics puff on clove cigarettes while sipping coffee (or Long Island iced teas). I was in one of these spots the first time I heard the song and was instantly captivated by Heron's delivery as much as by his message.

"The revolution will not be televised, because the revolution is gon' be live," Heron predicted. And I believed, although it had been twenty years since Heron first recorded those words. Many of us are still waiting for that non-televised revolution. Others put away their black power fist necklaces in exchange for gold ones. Still, during that curious period of my late adolescence, I had internalized Heron's message without asking whom I was listening to. The message in itself was enough of a gift.

A few years later, I was ending my undergraduate study at a university in rural Ohio, and had formed a bond with the man who would become my mentor: a creative writing instructor named Dr. John Scott. A cool, well-dressed, hipster-type in the guise of an academic, Scott was in his 50s while I was figuring my way through my early 20s. Scott took me under his wing, teaching me about more than our shared craft of creative writing, but also, about how to survive in the world once I left my protective academic environment. One day, "Scott" -- as I used to call him -- asked me if I had heard Gil Scott-Heron's latest album Spirits. "No," I answered. "Who is Gil Scott-Heron?" Scott looked me up and down, shook his head and said, "let's go."

Three minutes later, Scott and I were in his Lexus (only the best would do for Scott), when he played the disc for me. As the main streets of our rural college town morphed into Rt. 20, where we were surrounded by corn stalks, Scott turned the volume up to its near peak.

"Now, listen to this," Scott said. "That's who the fuck Gil Scott-Heron is." And immediately, I remembered "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and I made the connection, as I heard the lyrics from the disc's final track "Don't Give Up." "Ain't no way overnight for you to turn your life around/And this ain't the commentary of somebody who hasn't fallen right back down/ But if you're looking for a loser who found strength and success. Remember the spirit of brother, Malcolm X."

With these words, I not only knew who Gil Scott-Heron was, but what he was and will always be to his listeners. Gil Scott-Heron is a culture bearer. A griot in the truest sense of the word, whose message must be transmitted from generation to generation in the same way in which my mentor revealed Heron's work to me. There are few artists who emit this type of importance to their own culture and beyond. Gil Scott-Heron is one of them.

With this much meaning attached to Heron's repertoire of songs traversing 23 albums, it sheds light on why the upcoming re-release of two Scott-Heron discs resonates with such importance. It's Your World, originally released in 1976, is a Gil Scott-Heron live recording. The compilation disc The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron converges his recordings from 1970-1978, and was originally released in 1979. While the live disc captures Heron in all of his improvisational wit, the compilation album restores Heron's blues idiom with perhaps more intent than the other compilations that have come since.

Both discs are necessary reissues, particularly when given the temporal circumstances in which Heron created the bulk of his art: the 1970s, which truly was a "blue" period for many black Americans. Truly, one of the champion artistic spokesmen of the times, Heron's bassy, gravel-voiced blues style awakened underclass blacks to their political landscape, while evoking the challenges facing black men and women as they strove to survive with one another. Scott-Heron told it like it was (and still is) for better or worse, reflecting the collective will of black America through spoken word, song and soul.

"That's who the fuck Gil Scott-Heron is," my mentor said to me. And these re-releases, in less "hipster" terminology, will say the same to you.

By Daniel Gray-Kontar
January/February 2001
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The Revolution will not be televised
Talk The Talk, Walk The Walk
Word Up Root Down

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