It’s Still Winter in America—Let’s Move into the Spring
If you mention the name Gil Scott-Heron to the bulk of Generation Y or Z, you’re likely to get a blank stare. Or perhaps since May 27, 2011, you might get something like, “I saw on Facebook that he died, but who was he again?” How is it that the man who has influenced so many spoken word and hip hop artists, arguably the “godfather of rap,” has not achieved widespread recognition among the general population, especially when Jay-Z and Kanye West, some of the very artists inspired by Gil, are household names? I’m certainly not suggesting that the general population’s awareness of an artist is an accurate measure of that artist’s greatness; Gil was truly a genius. It just seems a bit puzzling that Gil was both immensely influential and invisible at the same time. Examining his body of work, it becomes clear how it would be in the interest of the “haves” to keep Gil and his lyrics away from the general public, particularly the “have nots.”
Amidst virtuosic instrumentals, Gil Scott-Heron’s soulful voice speaks of African-American and Pan-African liberation, of the American government’s misplaced priorities—putting a white man on the moon while the social conditions of black America deteriorate, of the need for peace and justice. Gil speaks the raw truth.
If you Google “Gil Scott-Heron,” you will probably come across an obituary quick to blame Gil for his own lack of “success”—his crack addiction prevented his success—a likely description. But I would caution everyone from letting this version of his-story muddle our memory of Gil. Remember Gil’s words from “Black History/The World” before simply appropriating the mainstream media’s narrative:
“Somebody went to a hell of a lot of trouble to make sure that when we looked things up we wouldn’t fare too well and we would come up with totally unreliable pictures of ourselves.” (video)
There is a reason the media alters and hides the truth: they want to perpetuate a false consciousness, one that doesn’t threaten the power of the wealthy, white men in control of our social system.
Generations Y and Z, let’s not let their story affect our memory of Gil Scott-Heron. Listen to his music for yourself. Remember that Gil was a musical mastermind, one of the first to do what he did, and without him, Jay-Z and Kanye probably would not exist. But more importantly, remember that Gil was a powerful political and social critic. We should listen closely to his lyrics, for they contain truths that should enlighten and motivate us to action. If our collective memory of Gil, as influenced by the mainstream media, relegates him to a potential-genius-turned-crackhead, then we fail to take seriously his true legacy. The power of his words is lost. We are not spurred to revolution. They win. Let’s not let that happen.
So why is Gil Scott-Heron not a household name? Because it is still “Winter in America.” Like the cold, dead months of winter, the American social system, controlled by wealthy, white men, squashes any dissent or agitation surrounding the status quo. Because of his inclination to speak a truth that challenged the plutocratic paradigm, the wintery conditions have prevented Gil from flourishing more widely as an artist. It is this system that will also attempt to cast the legacy of Gil Scott-Heron in a negative light. And it is this system that is still actively working to prevent people of color and the poor from growing and flourishing. But if we reject their story and heed Gil Scott-Heron’s wisdom, we can move ourselves into the spring.
Some of Gil Scott-Heron’s other work: