The Gift of Gil Scott Heron – Seeing the Present In The Past
“Johannesburg” and “Gun” are the first songs I remember hearing by Gil Scott Heron. That was in the mid 1970’s. I’ve often listened to the vinyl that I still have of Gil. He was the voice of protest, the voice of reason, the teacher of truth. Many of his lyrics written in the 1970’s and 1980’s, are true today.
Like many albums of that time, one song was more than 12 minutes. It was not merely listening music; it was conversation music.
Gilbert “Gil” Scott-Heron (April 1, 1949 – May 27, 2011) was more of a poet than a singer. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Gil’s mother was Bobbie Scott-Heron, who was an opera singer with the New York Oratorio Society. His dad, Gil Heron, was nicknamed the “Black Arrow.” He was a Jamaican football player in the 1950’s and the first Black man to play for the Celtic Football Club in Glasgow.
As a teen, Gil earned a full scholarship to the private, prestigious Fieldston School in New York. He was one of five black students at the school and his experience lead to his boldness, which became his hallmark in poetry and song. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is one of Gil’s most popular songs, recorded by others, including LaBelle. He used the words “not televised” in many of his other songs. As Gil would have his listeners know, what the media reports is limited to who they interview; what they are told. If you want to know the truth, you have to live it.
In 1979, Gil wrote “Jose Campos Torres“.
“It’s a turn around world where things are all too quickly turned around
It was turned around so that right looked wrong
It was turned around so that up looked down
It was turned around so that those who marched in the streets with bibles and signs of peace became enemies of the state and risk to national security
So that those who questioned the operations of those in authority on the principles of justice, liberty, and equality became the vanguard of a communist attack”
Jose Campos Torres is a poem set to music, about Houston cops killing a Viet Nam Veteran in 1977. Here we are in 2014, and Gil’s lyrics apply to today.
In 1981, Gil released the song B-Movie. Gil looked into America’s past, spoke of its present, and predicted its future.
“What has happened is that in the last 20 years,
America has changed from a producer to a consumer.
And all consumers know that when the producer names the tune, the consumer has got to dance. That’s the way it is.
We used to be a producer – very inflexible at that, and now we are consumers and, finding it difficult to understand.
Natural resources and minerals will change your world.
The Arabs used to be in the 3rd World.
They have bought the 2nd World and put a firm down payment on the 1st one.
Controlling your resources will control your world.”
“As Wall Street goes, so goes the nation.
And here’s a look at the closing numbers:
racism’s up, human rights are down, peace is shaky, war items are hot.
The House claims all ties. Jobs are down, money is scarce, and common sense is at an all-time low on heavy trading.”
In 1981, Gil wrote prophetic words about the attitude of owning guns in America.
Brother Man says he’s ‘fraid of gangsters
Messing with people just for fun
He don’t want to be next.
He got a family to protect.
So just last week he bought himself a gun.
Everybody got a pistol, everybody got a .45
And the philosophy seem to be,
At least as near as I can see,
When other folks give up theirs, I’ll give up mine.
This is a violent civilization;
If civilization’s where I am.
Every channel that I stop on
Got a different kind of cop on
Killing them by the million for Uncle Sam.
In 1994, Gil released “Message To The Messengers” where among other messages, he repeated the advice that what we need to know will not be televised.
“Make sure you know the real deal about past situations
It ain’t just repeatin’ what you heard on the local TV stations
…Sometimes they tell lies and put ’em in a truthful disguise But the truth is that’s why we said it wouldn’t be televised
They don’t know what to say to our young folks,but they know that you do and if they really knew the truth…why would they tell you?
The first sign is peace, tell all them gun totin’ young brothas That the man is glad to see us out there killin’ one another
We raised too much hell when they was shootin’ us down
So they started poisoning our minds tryin’ to jerk us all around
And they tell us they got to come in and control our situation They want half of us on dope and the other half in incarceration
If the ones they want dead ain’t killed by what they instigated They put some dope on a brotha’s body and claim it was drug related
Tell them drug related means there don’t need to be no investigation
Or at least that’s the way they’re gon’ play it on the local TV stations”
Brother Gil has passed on, but his lyrics still live. He was ahead of his time, or maybe I should say that he is timeless.
This weekend, I’m reflecting on the past, to understand the present, to change the future. I invite you to join me.
Jose Campos Torres