Gil Scott-Heron 'was first and foremost an activist,' fellow poet says
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Gil Scott-Heron had a profound influence on many aspiring poets including Malik al-Nasir and his band, Malik and the OGs. Nasir joined The World's host Marco Werman to talk about his lifelong connection with Scott-Heron recounted in his new book, "Letters to Gil."
Poet Malik al-Nasir with Gil Scott-Heron, a jazz and spoken-word artist.
Courtesy of Malik al-Nasir
On Saturday, singer-songwriter and poet Gil Scott-Heron was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a recipient of the Early Influence Award.
Scott-Heron referred to himself as a "bluesologist," but to fans, he was one of the first rappers to fuse jazz with R&B and, more importantly, with his poetry. Many of Scott-Heron's songs throughout the 1970s and '80s addressed racial and political tensions in the US and elsewhere, with an eye on justice and equality. His message was universal.
Scott-Heron's best-known composition is 1970 single, "The Revolution will not be Relevised," which warned listeners to question the power of mass media.
"The revolution will not be right back After a message about a white tornado White lightning, or white people You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom The tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl The revolution will not go better with Coke The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath The revolution will put you in the driver's seat.
The revolution will not be televised Will not be televised Will not be televised Will not be televised The revolution will be no re-run, brothers The revolution will be live."
Scott-Heron produced socially conscious spoken-word poetry and music until his death in 2011. In 2010, he released his first new album in 16 years called, "I'm New Here," and his memoir, "The Last Holiday," was published posthumously in January 2012.
Nasir first met Gil Scott-Heron at the age of 18, right after his show at the Royal Court Theater in Liverpool in 1984. The young poet had just spent nine years in a state care system similar to group homes in the United States, and meeting him that night would prove to be a life-altering experience.
Marco Werman: You were a ward of the state basically, right?
Malik al-Nasir: Yeah, I'd been taken from my mum. My father had a stroke, became a quadriplegic, and he's Black, from Guyana. My mom was white, from Wales, so we were in a mixed family and when my father had the stroke, we had no one to protect us and the social services tried to prey on the poor families and we were one of them and I was taken into care at 9 years old. So I spent nine years in a very brutal and abusive care system. And at the age of 18, the state deposited me in a hostel for homeless Black youths, gave me £100 [about $110] and told me never to come back. And they left me destitute. And the night I met Gil Scott-Heron, that was the condition that I was in. He met this homeless, young Black man who'd been through this traumatic experience, who was looking for some help and looking for some direction. And that's the person who he met on that night.
You waited for him outside the door of the Royal Court Theater and you would not leave. You were determined. Why did you want to meet him? Why did you want to speak with Gil Scott-Heron that night?
Well, I actually snuck in and got to meet him. And, you know, the following day, they had a day off. I asked if I could cook a meal for them. After the meal, Gil tried to give me some money and I refused, and he kept trying to give me the money and I kept refusing. So he told the promoter, you know, "We're going off to Europe for two weeks, when we come back, we're going to tour the UK. Take his details, give him our details. Brother, I'd like you to come on tour. Would you be willing to do that?" And I'm like, to do what? And he was like, "Whatever the hell you want, just come on tour." And that's what I did, you know? And from that moment, I continued to tour with Gil for 27 years, and over that period, he became my mentor, my friend and my confidante, and I always describe the night that I met Gil is the day my train changed track. He put me on a completely different trajectory when I was able to realize my potential, not just by studying his work, but by also having that positive role model in my life, showing me and guiding me and creating opportunities for me just by taking me out of the situation I was in, taking me on tour around the world, allowing me to just be — you know? And that gave me the space to be able to develop and also the incentive — seeing the work that he was doing in civil rights, wanting to be like him, you know, wanting to go out there and and do the kind of things that were going to make a social impact to make the world a better place. So he created that desire in me to continue to pick up the baton where he left off and carried on the work after he was gone. And that's what I've been doing ever since.
So, let me ask you this. I'm really curious. If it had been you, Malik, giving the induction speech for Gil Scott-Heron at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Saturday, what would you have said about him?
I would say that Gil Scott-Heron was first and foremost an activist — that the music was incidental. The music was the delivery system for the message. He was driven by the need for civil rights. He was driven by the desire for voter registration, he incorporated the narrative of people like Fannie Lou Hamer every night in his concerts because he wanted people to understand what it was for Black people to get the vote. You know, he wanted people to understand the plight of Gary Tyler at the Angola State Penitentiary. He wanted people to understand what was going on with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg and apartheid South Africa. He wanted people to know that we almost lost Detroit, about the nuclear power station, about, you know, the dangers of nuclear power and, you know, the work of Karen Silkwood. He was determined to bring these issues to the forefront and take all the complex geopolitical issues and distill it down for the common man. He was a ghetto reporter. You know, if you think about Gil Scott-Heron, you think about his literary cannon and you think about his body of work, you have to think about his activism as being at the core of it and the music was actually secondary.
This interview has been lighted edited and condensed for clarity.
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