There is something ill-fitting, discomforting about the manner in which the legendary Gil Scott-Heron’s passing has been treated by print media, particularly in Britain.
Scott-Heron was largely ignored in his lifetime by traditional media and by the mainstream in general. He had hits, undoubtedly, and his classic screed ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ has entered the pop culture lexicon almost without acknowledgement. However, until a recent revival on Richard Russell’s XL Recordings and a remix album chaired by Jamie of the xx, his cultural cache was cult – a musician whose influence far overreached his renown. Five years ago, his death would have been notable, but not this notable.
Much of it has to do with the success of his return to music – he hadn’t released a thing between 1994’s Spirits and 2010’s sardonically-titled I’m New Here – and some is due to print journalism sourcing more and more of its content from social media. But that doesn’t quite account for everything – some of the coverage given to Scott-Heron’s death has gone beyond hagiography, effectively crediting the man with creating the entire culture of hip hop (but only the nice, positive parts, of course).
It took me a while to figure it out, but then it all made sense: Barack Obama. While the President’s standing in the world has diminished somewhat since taking office, he remains an object of utter fascination for most Europeans, particularly in the English-speaking countries. Obama swept into the UK last week, leaving for the continent mere hours before Scott-Heron drew down his final breaths in New York having just returned from his own sojourn in Europe.
It’s tempting in so many ways to link the two men’s stories: one of the greatest black musicians of all-time and the first black president of the United States. It’s attractive, but it’s a complete nonsense. The biggest offender (among many) was the Telegraph’s John McTernen, who wrote this nausea-inducing piece, “Paving the black road to the White House,” in which he stated that “the musical movement begun by Scott-Heron … could be said to have ultimately paved the way for Barack Obama to become President of the United States.”
McTernan repeats the received wisdom that Scott-Heron was the “godfather of hip hop,” an honour the musician took pains to distant himself from. It is in no way to understate the importance of Gil Scott-Heron as a musician and as a figure of inspiration to suggest that hip hop would have happened without his input, and indeed was actively fomenting around him as he played his small part in its development. This point appears to be lost on the journalists queuing up to anoint him rap music’s answer to Moses.
His music, his intelligence and his empathy had a profound effect on a generation of proud black musicians, but it’s a long, long way from the backstreets of New York to the White House. It renders Scott-Heron’s genius trivial to make such a gratuitous and nonsensical leap in logic. If there’s anything to the Obama link – and there’s very little – it’s tangible similarities in terms of their words, their manner and their moderate outlook. Though perhaps Gil had a slightly more liberal attitude when it came to controlled substances.
Listening to ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ (which was strongly influenced by the equally brilliant Last Poets’ ‘When the Revolution Comes‘), it’s impossible not to be struck by the weight of Scott-Heron’s words and the pure emotional force of his delivery. It’s propaganda at its very best.
As any student of English knows, propaganda isn’t all evil symbols and brainwashed proletariats – it can be a tremendously positive method of persuasion, of inspiration. ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ is a wonderful piece of empowerment propaganda. You can hear it in the endless repetition of the title; the relaxed, assured delivery; the careful choice of words and imagery for maximum visual impact. It’s more Malcolm X than Martin Luther King, but there’s something distinctly human about it – he even fucks up the delivery on a couple of occasions.
All analysis aside, it’s just a great example of inspirational, life-affirming musical poetry that will probably never cease to be relevant as long as intolerance and injustice – and televisions – exist. That should be sexy enough to earn him his place in history without Obama’s help, no?
Those interested in some genuinely great tributes to and memories of Gil Scott-Heron would be well-advised to check out the Guardian Music portal, in particular this piece written a couple of years before his death by friend Jamie Byng.