Roots of Rap: Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011)

I recall the first time I heard rap music: it wasn’t as good as I expected. Violent towards humanity, and laden with expectations of sexual freedom for men with multiple women, it seemed shallow but logically the outcome had its analog in heavy metal rock: unreflective lyrics, and unimaginative music.

But, my sense of expectation was already set much earlier in life from hearing Gil Scott-Heron. I discovered that he passed away last weekend, and regrettably, his life “was the embodiment of the black inner-city experience.” Scott-Heron had both a great voice, and was an excellent poet; his sense of musicality was unique and the rhythms he worked with were both basic and eclectic.

Of course, I first heard Scott-Heron when I was in…junior high…and I thought then as I do now: this guy is a sharp observer of humanity and knows what the political horizon will become. I was listening to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” I link to the lyrics, and if you listen to the sample on iTunes, it will begin to get your imagination going of how persuasive and powerful an artist Scott-Heron was. Whatever I might have thought I knew about black people and their American experience- as well as the reference sources- that was completely demolished as an exclusive perspective after hearing “The Revolution.”

After graduating from high school, friends invited me to listen to “Johannesburg” and that broke open a fresh way of discovering the injustices taking place in South Africa. While joining the student marches at Berkeley demanding the UC Regents divest from companies doing business in South Africa, Scott-Heron’s chorus “What’s the word? Johannesburg!” was a frequent rallying cry throughout the crowd.

Scott-Heron’s poetry set to music really was the precursor to contemporary rap, and while there are some artists who are recovering the political bite to their art, all of them have to thank Scott-Heron for pioneering the art form.

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