Gil Scott-Heron, R.I.P.

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Mischa Richter
Gil Scott-Heron died on Friday. He was 62.
You know why Gil never had much love for that ill-conceived Godfather of Rap tag. If you're already your own genre, you don't need the weak currency offered by another. If you're a one-off, why would you want to bask in the reflected glory of knock-offs? If you're already Odin, being proclaimed the decrepit sire of Thor and Loki just ain't gonna rock your world.

Gil knew he wasn't bigger than hip-hop—he knew he was just better. Like Jimi was better than heavy metal, Coltrane better than bebop, Malcolm better than the Nation of Islam, Marley better than the King James Bible. Better as in deeper—emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, politically, ancestrally, hell, probably even genetically. Mama was a Harlem opera singer; papa was a Jamaican footballer (rendering rolling stone redundant); grandmama played the blues records in Tennessee. So grit shit and mother wit Gil had in abundance, and like any Aries Man worth his saltiness he capped it off with flavor, finesse and a funky gypsy attitude.

He was also better in the sense that any major brujo who can stand alone always impresses more than those who need an army in front of them to look bad, jump bad, and mostly have other people to do the killing. George Clinton once said Sly Stone's interviews were better than most cats' albums; Gil clearing his throat coughed up more gravitas than many gruff MCs' tuffest 16 bars. Being a bona fide griot and Orisha-ascendant will do that; being a truth-teller, soothsayer, word-magician, and acerbic musical op-ed columnist will do that. Gil is who and what Rakim was really talking about when he rhymed, "This is a lifetime mission: vision a prison." Shouldering the task of carrying Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson and The Black Arts Movement's legacies into the 1970s world of African-American popular song will do that too. The Revolution came and went so fast on April 4, 1968, that even most Black people missed it. (Over 100 American cities up in flames the night after King's murder—what else do you think that was? The Day After The Revolution has been everything that's shaped America's racial profile ever since, from COINTELPRO to Soul Train, crack to krunk, bling to Barack.)

Gil, a student of radical history and politics, knew that if you were charged with the duties of oracle, troubadour, poet, gadfly, muckraker, and grassroots shit-talker, your job was to ride the times (and the Times) like Big rode beats, to provoke the state and the streets, to progress your own radical headspace. Many cats of Gil's generation became burnt-out anachronisms from trying to wage '60s battles on '70s battlegrounds; some are still at it today. Gil knew The Struggle was a work-in-progress—a scorecard event of win-some-lose-some, lick your wounds, live to fight another day. Keep your eyes on the prize—a more Democratic union—but also on the ever-changing same. Keep it progressive but keep it moving too. Not so difficult if you're the type of self-medicating brother who gets lonely if he doesn't hear the yap of hellhounds on his trail.

Gil described himself best as a "Bluesologist," a Hegelian-cum-African student of the science of "how things feel." Thus the vast emotional range in Gil's writings—why the existential consequences of getting high and the resultant pathos could move that stuttering vibrato to emphatic song same as the prospect of South African liberation could. We call Gil a prophet, but most prophets don't prophesy their own 40-year slow-death with the precision, poignancy and nuance he did on "Home Is Where The Hatred Is," "The Bottle" and "Angel Dust." Gil was better than most rappers because he leaned as hard on his vulnerability as other muhfuhkuhs lean on their glocks, AK's and dogged-out bitches, real or rhetorically imagined. His potency as a balladeer is vastly underrated compared to the shine shown his protest vehicles. If you yearn to hear your nutsack glorified, there are reams of lyrics ready to handily fulfill your manly needs. But the dude who needs a song allaying fears that his failure at marriage will cost him his children can only turn to "Your Daddy Loves You." I don't know what Gil's relationship to he and Brenda Sykes' only daughter Gia Scott-Heron was in his twilight-zone years, I just know that song owns the fraught distraught father-to-daughter communiqué category in the blues canon.


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