The musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron – best known for his pioneering rap The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – has died at the age of 62, having fallen ill after a European trip.
Jamie Byng, his UK publisher, announced the news via Twitter: “Just heard the very sad news that my dear friend and one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, the great Gil Scott-Heron, died today.”
Scott-Heron’s spoken word recordings helped shape the emerging hip-hop culture. Generations of rappers cite his work as an influence.
He was known as the Godfather of Rap but disapproved of the title, preferring to describe what he did as “bluesology” – a fusion of poetry, soul, blues and jazz, all shot through with a piercing social conscience and strong political messages, tackling issues such as apartheid and nuclear arms.
“If there was any individual initiative that I was responsible for it might have been that there was music in certain poems of mine, with complete progression and repeating ‘hooks’, which made them more like songs than just recitations with percussion,” Scott-Heron wrote in the introduction to his 1990 Now and Then collection of poems.
He was best known for The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, the critically acclaimed recording from his first album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, and for his collaborations with jazz/funk pianist and flautist Brian Jackson.
In The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, first recorded in 1970, he issued a fierce critique of the role of race in the mass media and advertising age. “The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning or white people,” he sang.
He performed at the No Nukes concerts, held in 1979 at Madison Square Garden. The concerts were organised by a group called Musicians United for Safe Energy and protested against the use of nuclear energy following the meltdown at Three Mile Island. The group included singer-songwriters such as Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and Bonnie Raitt.
Scott-Heron’s song We Almost Lost Detroit, written about a previous accident at a nuclear power plant, is sampled on rapper Kanye West’s single The People. Scott-Heron’s 2010 album, I’m New Here, was his first new studio release in 16 years and was hailed by critics. The album’s first song, On Coming From a Broken Home, is an ode to his maternal grandmother, Lillie, who raised him in Jackson, Tennessee, until her death when he was 13. He moved to New York after that.
Scott-Heron was HIV positive and battled drug addiction through most of his career. He spent a year and a half in prison for possession. In a 2009 interview he said that his jail term had forced him to confront the reality of his situation.
“When you wake up every day and you’re in the joint, not only do you have a problem but you have a problem with admitting you have a problem.” Yet in spite of some “unhappy moments” in the past few years he still felt the need to challenge rights abuses and “the things that you pay for with your taxes”.
“If the right of free speech is truly what it’s supposed to be, then anything you say is all right.”
Scott-Heron’s friend Doris Nolan said the musician had died at St Luke’s hospital on Friday afternoon. “We’re all sort of shattered,” she told the Associated Press.
The title track from his last album I’m New Here contains the line “I’m hard to get to know, impossible to forget”, which pretty much sums up the man and his music.
An interesting fact is that his father, also called Gil, or more properly Gilbert, played football for Celtic in 1951, becoming the first black player to play for Celtic and I think the second ever black player to play in the Scottish football league.
R.I.P. Gil Scott-Heron 1949-2011