Hailed by many as the Godfather of Rap, Gil Scott-Heron is one of the most influential poets and musicians of the last half century. Born in Chicago in 1949, his body of work includes 13 musical albums, five books (fiction and poetry) and thousands of live performances. His classic song-poems like "The Bottle," "Home is Where the Hatred Is," "Winter in America," and "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," remain relevant four decades after they appeared. He died unexpectedly in May 2011 after returning from a European tour. Gia Scott-Heron is his Los Angeles born daughter and a poet as well. A year after his death we spoke in depth about his work, their relationship and her own blossoming literary career.
Two recent projects released by Gil Scott-Heron set the stage for discussion. His autobiographical memoir "The Last Holiday" published by Grove Press in January 2012 and 2010's "I'm New Here," released a year before his death by XL Recordings, his first new record in 16 years. "I'm New Here," is darker than his earlier recorded work. The sonic landscape is more stark and minimal than the many records he made with long-time collaborator Brian Jackson. His cover of Robert Johnson's "Me & the Devil" is industrial blues.
Gil Scott-Heron never considered himself the Godfather of Rap. He knew he was part of a continuum of voices: Leroi Jones, The Last Poets, Watts Prophets, the Black Arts Movement, many others unnamed. He saw the Last Poets when he was a student at Lincoln University. He writes in his memoir about the Last Poets, "their things were a capella without music. I always had a band, so it was a different sort of thing. But we were trying to go in the same direction." Gil's versatile skills as writer, piano player, poet, singer, scholar culminated into great success by his mid-20s. He had his Masters Degree by age 24. He showed the Dean his two vinyl records and published book to get into the program at Johns Hopkins University, he recounts the story in his memoir.
The connection between his recordings and longer published memoir creates a conversation between texts that communicates messages on multiple levels. The powerful poem, "On Coming from a Broken Home" is a two part piece bookending the new album.
I want to make this a special tribute
To a family that contradicts the concepts,
Heard the rules but wouldn't accept,
And womenfolk raised me and I was full grown
Before I knew I came from a broken home.
The two part recording of the poem is masterfully executed. The poem pays honor to the women of his life and calls into question the idea of a "broken home." Celebrating his mother and grandmother he recalls their care for him and the feeling of love he grew up with,
I come from WHAT THEY CALLED A BROKEN HOME,
But if they ever really called at our house
They would have known how wrong they were.
We working on our lives
And our homes and dealing with what we had,
Not what we didn't have.
The poem deconstructs the "broken home" stereotype, "And too many homes have a missing woman or man without the feeling of missing love." In his new book, he elaborates in greater detail about all the love he received and the women who raised him. For Gia, the book shed light on a few things they never talked about. "I think the most valuable information he left in the book is the part where he talks about his Grandmother, my great-grandmother Lily," she says. "My Mom had told me when I was young that Daddy had found her dead one morning when he was only 12. So I kind of knew the story without all the details. It was a topic that I purposely and consciously chose not to broach with him. I didn't know how he'd react...I mean, what a painful memory, and the last thing I wanted to do was hurt my Dad. So, although I had many questions about her, as well as others on his side of the family (like his Dad), I didn't ask him about it...ever! Luckily I didn't have to a whole lot of time to beat myself up about the things I didn't ask him because he left many of the answers in his book."
Lynell George writes in the Los Angeles Times that The Last Holiday does not, "explain the "whys" of the latter years, but it is true to the man who shrugged off the limits of labels. Though, nearing the conclusion of the book, there are hints of darkness, his later interior struggle, he decided that this was the story he wanted to tell, one that is less official accounting than one long, open-hearted solo." Culminating with stories on Stevie, discussions of MLK and riffing on Ronald Reagan, the prose is engaging and will lead any true Scott-Heron fan back into his recorded catalog.
"'The Last Holiday' is as much about his life as it is about context," George writes, "the theater of late 20th century America -- from Jim Crow to the Reagan '80s and from Beale Street to 57th Street. The narrative is not, however, a rise-and-fall retelling of Scott-Heron's life and career. It doesn't connect all the dots. It moves off-the-beat, at its own speed. It lingers on certain life chapters he preferred to recall."
Instead he reflects on the late 1960s and explicates his early work with personal stories. His first famous poem, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," is relevant to this day loaded with metaphors and extra-textual references, political commentary as accurate as Howard Zinn with the humor of Richard Pryor or George Carlin.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight germs that may
Cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver's seat.
Around the same time Scott-Heron published his first book of poetry and recorded his first album both titled "Small Talk at 125th & Lenox," he was hard at work on a novel, "The Vulture." Set in New York City in 1969, it is well-constructed murder mystery. A work of inner city urban surrealism, the confusing plot matches Faulknerian levels in the complex web weaved. Utilizing techniques now common in film and postmodern fiction, the story is told from four different perspectives and chronology is scrambled.
In the preface he writes, "My biggest problem setting it up was how to show you the murder of John Lee without showing you the murderer. Hence, the autopsy report in the opening section." Within the different perspectives lies ample commentary on New York City, race relations and politics. The book is prefaced by his poem, "The Vulture."
Another song on "I'm New Here" titled "Your soul & mine" will be recognized by long-time fans as his poem "The Vulture;" the same poem that prefaces his 1970 novel "The Vulture" and appeared on his first album the same year. The difference in the two recordings of the poem marks an almost 40 year gap. The latest version on the new album sounds especially haunting because his age and life experience can be heard in his voice. Referencing Greek mythology to discuss the plight of Black America he says:
Charon brought his raft from the sea that sails on souls,
And saw the scavenger departing, taking warm hearts to the cold.
He knew the ghetto was the haven
for the meanest creature ever known.
Charon is the figure in Greek mythology that carries souls of the newly dead across the rivers that divide the world of the living from the dead. The tone pervades "I'm New Here." "New York is Killing Me," is another dark piece in line with this. The track "Running" is from his poem "The Oldest Reason in the World." Key lines include:
Because running will be the way your life and mine
Will be described:
As in the long run or
As in having given someone a run for his money or
As in running out of time
Gia says, "he changed the title to "RUNNING" on his last album, but I recognized it as the same poem. I love how he exhausts all the references we use when talking about running. Like running for cover, and 'in the long run,' or giving someone a 'run for his money.' If there was one thing my Dad did well, it was to turn a word, or phrase on its head!"
Gia's mother Brenda Sykes is an actress known for films like Cleopatra Jones. Gil's childhood friend from New York City, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabber introduced the couple at the Roxy on Sunset. Gia was born in 1980, the same year Gil toured with Stevie Wonder in support of making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. Gil mentions spending time with the newborn Gia and her mother during the tour. He briefly mentions their 1987 divorce but keeps it all positive. What's more is that he even praises his mother in law, "of all the people I met in Southern California, my favorite was Mrs. Elvira Sykes, Brenda's mother. There was no complicated reason. She was simply one of the most sympathetic, pleasant and direct women I'd ever met." Much of Gia's childhood was spent with her grandmother Elvira Sykes in Baldwin Hills. They remain close today and Mrs. Sykes just celebrated her 90th birthday.
Another anecdote shared in the book is the time Gia saved her diabetic grandmother's life when she was 5. She was visiting New York to see her paternal grandmother. Gil writes, "As can happen with diabetics, grandma ran too hard one day, ran down, and then ran out. It was up to her granddaughter to run over to the phone, hit the 911 buttons, and tell the operator where to go. That was the part that most impressed me and everyone else upon hearing about the save Gia made, that a five-year old, just visiting New York, knew what street she was on (East 106th) and what apartment number they were in (19A). Not only did that take a good memory, it took a good set of nerves not to panic--- at five or 55. The incident proved how smart the daughter Brenda and I had produced was. She was intelligent, and turning out to be a nice person."
In songs like "Your Daddy Loves You," he repeats these sentiments. Gia remembers, "Being up on stage and singing back up for him on B-movie at age 12 (but just the chorus though...I didn't know the lyrics to the verses.)" "B-Movie" is Scott-Heron's 1981 poem about the presidential election of Ronald Reagan. He explains,"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."
B-Movie's prophetic insight rings true now more than ever, "And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future they looked for one of their heroes, someone like John Wayne. But unfortunately John Wayne was no longer available so they settled for Ronald the Raygun. And it has turned into something that we can only look at like a "B" movie."
Gia keeps the political tradition alive with her recent piece, "The Mitts are Off." She tears into Mitt Romney with the same skill as her father in "B-Movie." For example,
You used to be a pro-choice Independent, until it no longer suited your purpose.
Now you're a pro-life Republican posing as a conservative!
Gia opened for her father when she was 20; he performed at her school Pitzer College in February 2000 for Black History month. I first met Gia Scott-Heron on a rainy LA winter night in 2002 at a reading held at the Brewery Art Complex in Lincoln Heights. Her poems and presence were humble and powerful. Like her father she writes fiction and poetry, sharing his enthusiasm for wordplay and social commentary. She's also been influenced by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde. "I also love other kinds of writers like J.K. Rowling for her imagination and the way she incorporated Greek mythology."
Her work has her father's swagger with her own sophisticated stamp on it. "Right now I am working on my second album," she says. "I've been working on it diligently for quite some time. It's called 'Different from the Majority' and it's what I'm seeking to prove via its creation." When she's not writing and recording, she co-hosts a weekly open mic venue called Natural High on Washington in Culver City and stays active performing in local schools and universities.
Gia recalls her last time seeing her father, "I remember opening for him again Nov. 2010, and sharing a hotel room with him for a weekend in Oakland, CA. The last time I would ever be with him physically! It's very bitter-sweet to think back on that weekend. We watched CNN together, and shared continental breakfasts together, and leftovers from Yoshi's (the leftovers tasted better than when it was originally served!) and we just spoke to each other like I imagine "normal" folks do."
In July 2012 she performed at the tribute concert "Peace Go With You, Gil," at the California Plaza Grand Performances in Downtown L.A. Gia joined a talented ensemble of musicians and singers including Brian Jackson, Gil's primary musical partner for many years. Gia performed on stage and can be seen here.
Her father's example and legacy pushes her forward and inspires her to keep the work going. These lines from her poem, "Daddy" capture her point of view...
But it's okay Daddy, once I get myself steady, I'll be ready.
Ready to show off like I'm an exhibit at the Getty!
Ready to be a chip off the ole' block with ev'ry mic that I rock!
My Pops was the legendary Gil Scott!
He said that "The Revolution will not be Televised".
He said that 'the revolution will be live!'
I'm livin' proof that he was right.