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Saying good-bye to Gil Scott-Heron

  • Written by Bill Fletcher Jr.
  • Published in News
When I received word of the passing of noted poet and singer Gil Scott-Heron, I felt as if I had just heard about the death of a college friend whom I had not seen in many years.
 Bill Fletcher Jr.

by Bill Fletcher Jr.

NNPA News Service

When I received word of the passing of noted poet and singer Gil Scott-Heron, I felt as if I had just heard about the death of a college friend whom I had not seen in many years.  Perhaps it was because I actually got to know the work of Gil Scott-Heron while I was in college in the early 1970s.  His albums became part of my life and his songs and messages were part of the support system on which I and many other black radicals came to depend.

There are tremendous ironies connected with the life and work of GSH.  If you listen to one of his most famous pieces, “The Bottle,” and another, “Angel Dust,” you cannot but shake your head in knowing that the brother struggled for years with his own substance abuse.  The contradiction is startling in its drama.  Here was someone who went out of his way to warn us all of the dangers of substance abuse, yet he fell prey to it himself.  I hope that a future biographer of GSH will explore the demons that haunted him and had him live such a contradiction.

 Gil Scott-Heron

Yet, we must recognize and honor the many contributions of GSH.  He and the Last Poets (actually there were two groups that both called themselves The Last Poets) are seen as the parents of Hip Hop, but that does not provide enough context.  GSH arose at a critical moment in the Black Freedom Movement and the New Left.  As Manning Marable notes in his biography of Malcolm X, “Malcolm X:  A life of Reinvention, Malcolm spoke with the sound of contemporary jazz.  GSH took the rhetoric and analysis of the radical wing of the Black Freedom Movement and the New Left, and both poetized and jazz-isized it.  Whether through his famous “The Revolution will not be televised” or later work like “We beg your pardon America,” GSH grabbed hold of challenges of the moment and created a popular analysis that hit all of the right notes.

GSH was, in my opinion, at his best both when he was working with Brian Jackson, but also when his voice and sound were integrally part of a militant social justice movement.  When he sang “Johannes­burg,” his words became the anthem of the anti-apartheid movement in the USA. It was a song that came out at just the right moment, inspiring us all with its fierceness and spirit of resistance.  You could not listen to that song without feeling defiance in your soul and without being prepared to march.  In fact, the last time that I actually saw GSH in the flesh he was performing just that song in August 1983 at the 20th anniversary of the famous March on Washington.

GSH never lost his relevance. I am always haunted by his “Message to the Messengers,” which is a tremendous illustration of reaching across the generational divide to both mentor as well as partner with younger generations, offering them lessons from the movement that shaped us.

I appreciate all that he did and all that he offered.  Thank you, brother Gil.

(Bill Fletcher Jr. is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of “Solidarity Divided.”  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)  

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