An American Griot: Gil Scott-Heron with Don Geesling
Since his debut in 1970, poet, novelist, pianist, composer, producer, and social activist Gil Scott-Heron has crisscrossed the cultural matrix. Like the works of fellow tunesmiths Woody Guthrie and Nina Simone, Scott-Heron’s songs provide aural snapshots of the struggles that shaped American life in the twentieth century. Born in Chicago in 1949, Scott-Heron imbibed the American experience via the disparate worlds of Jackson, Tennessee, New York City, and Washington D.C. He received his formal education at prestigious institutions such as the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Lincoln University and Johns Hopkins University. This academic influence is revealed in many of Scott-Heron’s most memorable recordings, from Small Talk at 125th & Lenox to Spirits.
Dubbed the “Godfather of Rap,” Scott-Heron has become a ubiquitous and practically de rigueur influence for everyone from hip hoppers and indie rockers to aging literati and dyed-in-the-wool academics. As the author of dozens of distinctive poems and songs including “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Save the Children,” “The Bottle,” “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” “Johannesburg,” “Angel Dust,” and “Re-Ron,” Scott-Heron has cultural cache to spare. And for good reason: his recordings gave voice to the progressive cultural and identity politics that shaped postwar America. From Watergate to Apartheid, the Bicentennial to Reaganomics, and the Gulf War to gang wars, Scott-Heron has framed the issues for fellow political activists around the world. Indeed, for nearly four decades and over sixteen albums, Gil Scott-Heron has been a poetic conscience for America.
I had the privilege of catching up with Scott-Heron this past spring as I was wrapping up my master’s thesis and he was wrapping up a mandatory vacation at Collins Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Fortunately, since our conversation, Scott-Heron has returned to performing and reportedly has resumed work on a new book, The Last Holiday, which will chronicle Stevie Wonder’s successful campaign to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a reality in America. I would like to extend special thanks to Mr. Scott-Heron for his cooperation, time, and generous reflections.
Don Geesling (Rail): I’d like to start things off by asking you about the Harlem Renaissance and its influence on your work over the years.
Scott-Heron: It has been a big influence! Langston Hughes was one of the people who had gone to Lincoln. And when I was at Lincoln—one of the oldest black universities in the country—it had a tremendous collection of black writers. I had spent a lot of time in the black stacks at Lincoln and read up on things that had happened during the Harlem Renaissance and its background. And I had studied under James Saunders Redding [who] was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. He taught black literature there and he taught it in two parts; the first part began in the 1780s.
Rail: Going all the way back to Phyllis Wheatley?
Scott-Heron: Yeah, Phyllis Wheatley and Jupiter Jones, the first half brought you up to the 1900s and the second half was from 1900 to 1960. By the time I took his class it was 1968-1969.
Rail: How did you first encounter the works of Langston Hughes?
Scott-Heron: Well, Langston Hughes used to write a column for all the black newspapers and my grandmother used to subscribe to The Chicago Defender. So even when I was living with her, on Thursdays the guy who sold The Chicago Defender would come by and bring her a copy of her newspaper. That was her weekly newspaper—we didn’t take The Memphis Press-Sentinel or The Commercial Appeal—our only newspaper was The Chicago Defender and that’s where my grandmother would keep up with what she wanted to know about.
Rail: Why The Chicago Defender and not The Jackson Sun or one of the other local papers?
Scott-Heron: Well, I was born there, my mother lived there, and The Chicago Defender was part of that whole Pittsburgh Courier, Amsterdam News, a part of that whole network that carried black news, you know, and kept people brought up on what was going on in the black communities.
Rail: Getting back to the Renaissance, what do you see as the link between your poetry and that of Langston Hughes?
Scott-Heron: Well, the fact that I enjoyed his stuff so much, and my grandmother used to read me his columns every weekend, and I did my senior paper at Fieldston in high school on Langston Hughes’s writing.
Rail: What did you take from him most as a writer?
Scott-Heron: The fact that like, it’s easier to laugh than it is to cry and we have a lot to cry about—but there was a great deal of humor in his writing and a great deal of laughter in my life. I’m saying, my grandmother comes off like a very strict and hard working woman but she could laugh. And we enjoyed Langston Hughes’ stuff like the “Jess B. Semple” things that he used to write. Those were her favorites and they became my favorites. As far as I was concerned my grandmother knew everything and she could do no wrong, so if she was in favor of it, so was I. The humor that Langston Hughes had as a part of his make-up and a part of his character came through in his writing; they were things that I felt were very important to have as an artist. . I’m saying that [humor] was a direct link between me and Langston Hughes.
Rail: Did you dig his experiments with poetry and the Blues?
Scott-Heron: Yeah, like his and Arnaud “Arna” Bontemps …Over the course of the Harlem Renaissance they always refer back to the blues, and you know, living in Tennessee, the blues artists were the ones I was most familiar [with] from the radio.
Rail: So you were able to grasp that aspect of their work right away?
Scott-Heron: Yeah, I could see the necessity of it, I could see the humor of it, and I could see the rhythm of it.
Rail: Did you ever pick up that album on Verve that Hughes did with Mingus and Leonard Feather? (The Weary Blues)?
Scott-Heron: No, but I met Charlie Mingus and he spoke about it! I met Charlie Mingus at a place called The Joyous Lake, which was up in Woodstock. When we used to play in Woodstock, Charlie Mingus would come by. And he talked about the fact that my work reminded him a lot of Langston Hughes, and that was a very high compliment.
Rail: Absolutely! Did he ever bring his bass by the club?
Scott-Heron: No, he just came by to be entertained; I brought my band in and Charlie Mingus had a booth. And members of The Band that played with Bob Dylan would come through and Paul Butterfield people and like they had a whole artistic community up there at Woodstock.
Rail: What year was this?
Scott-Heron: (It) was ’75, ’76 when I first started going up there…I guess.
Rail: Switching gears again, how did you come to the attention of producer and Flying Dutchman records owner, Bob Thiele?
Scott-Heron: [Pitching songs] was the whole idea behind my going to see [Thiele] at Flying Dutchman. I told Bob Thiele I was a songwriter and I told him that I had a partner (Brian Jackson, Scott-Heron’s collaborator on nine albums) and that we wrote songs and that we thought that he was recording the kind of people that we thought might be interested in what we were doing; and he said that he didn’t have any money to do an album of music at the time. But he had read my book of poetry and he said “if you do that and make any money, maybe we can get some money together and do an album of music.” “Small Talk at 125th & Lenox,” “Whitey on the Moon,” “Brother,” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” got picked up…He called me up and said ‘who do you want to perform with?’ By that time, [Scott-Heron’s Lincoln-based band] Black and Blues had broken up, so that’s how we got to work with Ron Carter, Hubert Laws and Bernard Purdie. (Pieces of a Man, 1971)
Rail: So you made up a wish list and he made it happen.
Scott-Heron: He made it happen, yeah.
Rail: In Bob Thiele’s memoirs he wrote that you said “that anyone who had produced Jack Kerouac and John Coltrane can’t be all that bad.”
Scott-Heron: Well, that’s what attracted us to Flying Dutchman. That Bob Thiele was starting his own label and we felt as though if he had that kind of contact with Archie Schepp and if he could produce John Coltrane, then hell if he couldn’t produce us. (Laughs)
Rail: Were you a fan of Kerouac and the other Beats?
Scott-Heron: You know, I wasn’t that into the Beat stuff because I was into the blues. But I did understand where they were coming from. The Beatniks were the forerunners to the … hippies. And a lot of that came out of the neighborhoods that I lived in when we moved down to 17th Street, to the Fulton Houses.
Rail: There in Chelsea?
Scott-Heron: Yeah, you know that’s just right on top of the Village. We used to go down there to the coffee shops down there. I’d try to sneak in and see if I could see what was going on.
Rail: Did you know Joe Bataan and Edward Birdsong growing up in Chelsea?
Scott-Heron: Joe Bataan recorded “The Bottle” (as “La Botella” on the Afrofilipino LP). He recorded an instrumental version. He did it with a saxophone solo lead. You know, like, I had “What Good Is A Castle” and Riot—that was the album with Joe Bataan that I had. I used to describe my neighborhood as 85% Puerto Rican, 15% white people and me. So, there were a lot of Latin rhythms and Joe Bataan was a big excitement in the neighborhood.
Rail: How about H. Rap Brown, you’ve mentioned that he was from your neighborhood?
Scott-Heron: H. Rap Brown lived around on 18th Street. I didn’t meet him when he was in the neighborhood but I heard about him later on as somebody who was trying to take some of the pressure off of Stokely [Carmichael]. And José Feliciano used to play over at the pizza shop over there on the corner. He used to play “Mack the Knife” on the guitar when he was trying to earn himself a few coins.
Rail: So you were able to soak up all kinds of musical influences living in Chelsea?
Scott-Heron: Oh, I’m saying like, you know, Julius Lester lived up at 23rd Street; Edward Birdsong was from 18th Street; Ritchie Havens lived down on Hudson Street; the Wilson brothers had a loft down there before they started Mandrill—man, it was a very, very artistic neighborhood. A lot of artists were living down there.
Rail: And of course in the late ‘60s the Last Poets had their East Wind thing going on—the poetry collective up there at 125th and Lenox. Did you ever drop in on that scene?
Scott-Heron: That was something that (percussionists) Isaiah (Washington) and Charlie (Saunders) took me to because they lived at 117th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. Anytime I’d go to their neighborhood—they worked at a place called Pride Inc., which was also located on 125th Street—we used to go by there all the time.
Rail: What was Pride Incorporated?
Scott-Heron: It was like Operation P.U.S.H.—a job place. It was where people would go to get training for jobs in construction work and different job assignments, you know. Like any kind of work you could do, if you could do it they could find you a job. If you wanted to work, they could use your talents. (Laughs)
Rail: In the introduction to “Comment #1” and on “Enough” you spoke of “the Rainbow Conspiracy” and the alliance between SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the Black Panthers. What was the Rainbow Conspiracy?
Scott-Heron: A lot of people tried to confuse what was going on with the people in the Latin community, the people in the black community and SDS. And [the Rainbow Conspiracy] is what they used to call it. Any time they would see Felipe Luciano and his people from the Young Lords and the people who were trying to get the Black Panthers organized in New York—I didn’t get to know those people as thoroughly as I might have, but they were all down in the Village. They used to have handouts and they were trying to do fundraisers and stuff so they could do things for the community. I never joined any of those organizations, because like once you join one of the organizations, it made you enemies with somebody else. You start arguing back and forth and you’ve wasted your energy that you could be using and you’re both trying to do something for the community. Which is why I stayed out of most organizations. I wanted to be available to all of them. I played for Shirley Chisholm, I played for Ken Gibson—I played for anybody who was trying to do something positive for black people, just count me in and I’ll be there.
Rail: In an interview with the Black Panthers’ newspaper (The Black Panther) in 1975 you criticized white folks who were joining the movement, particularly in regards to SDS.
Scott-Heron: Yeah, they had a movement and they needed to be in that one.
Rail: That’s what you said then: that you welcomed their interest but told them to “go revolutionary” in their community and go talk to their people…
Scott-Heron: Well, see, they was the ones that were lynching people, we wasn’t killing them. They needed to talk to their own folks.
Rail: Between 1970 and 1974, the movement changed. Society was changing; the Panthers had been neutralized and pan-Africanism came into vogue.
Scott-Heron: Pan-Africanism was a part of it initially. I think a lot of this started with Stokely Carmichael who changed his name to Kwame Ture and went to Guinea and started talking. Stokely Carmichael used to work with Marion Berry in SNCC. So when I moved to D.C. and started teaching at the University of D.C., I found out a lot of the things they had been doing down there and a lot of the folks they had worked with and a lot of the echoes of what they had been trying to do were still there and working.
Rail: So your interest in pan-Africanism, you trace it back to Stokely?
Scott-Heron: Yeah, absolutely.
Rail: In the liner notes to the “Johannesburg” 12-inch single, Jesse Jackson is mentioned as being an influence—would you care to elaborate a little?
Scott-Heron: Jesse Jackson was an inspirational person. You see, if you’re going to change things, if you don’t change the law, you don’t change anything. So, Jesse Jackson’s attitude was about changing the laws and about people needing to know more about Thurgood Marshall and needing to know more about what happened, because how you change America is the law. You can burn your community down and somebody else will build it up and all you’re doing is burning down some houses. But if you change the law, then you have done a whole lot to change the foundation of society. So I’m saying, in the meantime, I’m looking at myself as a piano player from Tennessee. Because that’s what I was really trying to do; play some piano and write some songs. You know, like, the fact that I’ve had some political influence, I mean, that was all well and good, but I never considered myself a politician.
Rail: But you do consider yourself an activist, right?
Scott-Heron: I consider myself a piano player, I mean, I was writing some songs that other people could use. Because we helped in any political attitudes or any political thing—that’s what was necessary in the black community. I never ran for any offices, I’m saying, aside from being the president of my freshman class for a few months, that’s the only election I was ever involved in: that was enough.
Rail: Who would you regard as being your main political influences on those first three albums?
Scott-Heron: On Pieces of a Man, the only thing that I could really consider political was “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and we had recorded that without music on Small Talk at 125th & Lenox. I didn’t think that much about it.
Rail: But how about Free Will?
Scott-Heron: Free Will was poems that we had wanted to record on Small Talk that we hadn’t had room for. I was still in school and I was working on another novel (The Nigger Factory). Actually, if I could have done Free Will again, it might have been all tunes. Yeah, Brian [Jackson, Scott-Heron’s collaborator on nine albums] and I were students at the time and we had written a few songs, but the songs that we had really wanted to record, by that time Victor Brown (vocalist) and Isaiah (Washington, percussionist) had graduated. I was working on The Nigger Factory and on my way to graduate school and Brian and I hadn’t had that much chance to get together. And Bob Thiele was anxious to follow up the Pieces of a Man album because it was so successful. We did Free Will, so we did songs that we had left and the poems that we had left and we knew that we were going. As far as I was concerned that was the end of my contract. Like, I had signed a three record deal and that’s all I had planned to do was those three records. The deal I made first was for The Vulture, my novel; what I wanted to be was a novelist, Brian wanted to be a recording artist and the things that happened, happened. I wanted to be a song writer, but I never saw myself—
Rail: As a recording artist, per se?
Scott-Heron: I wanted to write novels, that was the concept.
Rail: But you were also able to get a lot of your songs covered in the early 1970s.
Scott-Heron: That was what the idea was, to record the music.
Rail: The idea behind the Flying Dutchman records then was trying to get those songs out there for other people to hear—
Scott-Heron: [And] to be covered.
Rail: Let’s talk about a few of those early cover versions. Who cut “Lady Day and John Coltrane?”
Scott-Heron: A woman named Penny Goodwin. (1974) And The Intruders did “Save the Children.” (1973) LaBelle did “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1973) and Esther Phillips covered “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” (1971).
Rail: Okay, last question: speaking of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” that’s probably one of your most misinterpreted and misappropriated pieces. In general, how do you feel about people’s misuse of your work over the years?
Scott-Heron: As an artist, you always subject yourself to that. I think a lot of people look at The Great Gatsby but I don’t think that F. Scott Fitzgerald is turning over in his grave! [Laughs]
Don Geesling is a graduate student in history, a scholar of Gil Scott-Heron's work and a musician presently living in Tulsa, OK. Send comments and queries care of firstname.lastname@example.org