Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron: The Questioner

Gil Scott-Heron greets me genially. He's slightly spidery in his dangled movements, surprisingly slight and aged. At 45 the man oft referred to as The Godfather of Rap is an undeniably emaciated figure.

Sitting on opposing beds in his modest hotel room, he asks if I mind if he smokes. Tender, even tentative, his gentlemanly persona and attenuated physicality are at odds with a ferocious political reputation as a songwriter, though not his dry dismissal of the O. J. Simpson case buzzing on the television. "I've just been watching the questioner question the questions of the other questioner," he laughs.

Exposing internecine political realities, attacking the absurd and the downright stupid, has always been Scott-Heron's forte. On his new album, Spirits, his first release in 12 years, he lambasts the Gulf War ethos and America's techno-Disney chauvinism:

"Yeah, there was some smart bombs. There was some dumb ones, too." He laughs. "Oh, I love that line!" Struggling to overcome a fit of chuckling, he says between gasps: "See, we don't want to get too heavy with our politics. We want to let people know we're here, not just tell them things all the time."

It's impossible to underestimate the significance of Scott-Heron in the history of contemporary black music. As one American newspaper observed: "If rap, as Chuck D. (of Public Enemy) said, is the CNN of the black community, then Gil Scott-Heron was its first anchor."

His music, however, is far broader than affinities to rap music via Beatnik poetry might suggest. Scott-Heron's soulful, smokey baritone, a little drier now but still like syrup at the bottom of a glass, his piano-based compositions and his potent grasp of bluesy jazz and soul can take seductive flight.

"I don't know about all this Godfather of Rap business," he says dismissively, hands trembling, legs trembling. "I just think people say that because they haven't listened to the people I was listening to; they just don't know about them."

On a song like 'Message To The Messengers', on Spirits, Scott-Heron takes rap, or more particularly gangsta rap, to task for its negativity. "And the media loves to use these 20-second grabs that perpetuate these violent images of our community, these sound bites. But they don't look at a guy going off to work, watch him coming home, trying to put food in the mouths of his children. They don't tell that story, which is the real story of 95 per cent of our community."

Scott-Heron lives on 125th and Lennox in New York, "right in the middle of Harlem. It's no heavier than a lot of places. Most people are just trying to go about their business, get on with living. We've got more than our fair share of depression, of unemployment, of poverty, but that ain't so different either from a lot of places I've seen in the world."

Understanding the heritage of hate that can take root in any oppressed culture, he tries to explain that "it's hard to act like you're equal when you've been oppressed for centuries. See, we're a colony of people who were transplanted through slavery into America - we don't have a claim on the land to bind us like the American Indians. But what we are as a culture was born there. Rap, jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll, these are the things people think of when they think of America, but not many black people have profited greatly from them. When people see a lot of money being made out of their culture, but not by them, they don't feel very equal either."

Nonetheless, his debate with gangsta rap stems from a need to say they represent "1 per cent of what our community is".

Despite his proud emphasis on constant live gigging, the gap of 12 years between studio recordings before Spirits and highly mixed reports of his live abilities have been associated with rumours of drug and alcohol problems and snide references to "Gil Scott-Heroin".

That his physically imposing stature - in the '70s he was as lean and tough as the proverbial "black panther" - has given way to such a frail, middle-aged man only adds weight to those stories of dissipation and squandered talent. Scott-Heron boldly shows me his arms. "I ain't no junkie. You don't see trackmarks on my arms. I'm afraid of needles! I'm a diabetic and I still won't use needles.

"It's like Robert de Niro in Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. He's an actor. But while he's doing those parts, we believe him. That's because he does it so well. So when I sing a song like 'Home Is Where The Hatred Is' ("A junkie walking through the streets at night, I'm on my way home") it's a story. But I can't really blame people for saying all those things about me because it just means I told the story so well they believed it."

You don't have to be an addict to suffer foibles. And pay for them. Scott-Heron certainly looks well worn in. Glasses perched on a gaunt face with a greying, straggly beard, a beautiful smile, teeth tobacco crooked, everything about him hurting with kindness. Something most definitely catches in the image of the man before you, in the many years away from the studio, in the live shows that veer from sublime to average: Drugs? Maybe not now. Ill health? You can't escape the thought, but whether it be diabetes or some unspecified illness ravaging him, who can say.

Born in 1949 in Chicago, Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee by his grandmother. He was one of the first black children to be used in the experiment of integration, one of three children brought into Jackson elementary school. It's been said that after the cursing and abuse from white children became unbearable, his mother moved him to New York City, to the Bronx, then the Hispanic-dominated Chelsea neighbourhood.

It was Scott-Heron's grandmother who bought him an upright piano from the funeral parlour next-door after it closed. "People see me as a writer who discovered the piano, but I'm really a piano player who discovered writing." Given his deep musicality, his writing skills cannot be overlooked: a published novel at age 19 called The Vulture; a book of poetry, Small Talk At 125th and Lennox, by 21.

The poetry led to recordings and music as a way to reach the masses at that point in American history in the early '70s when the civil rights movement was losing momentum and Black Power was showing its hand.

Not surprisingly, Spirits is about the spirits behind these movements. The tune of John Coltrane's 'Equinox' forms a trace-line beneath the Spirits title-track, a tribute "to balances. Coltrane was born on the September equinox, when night and day are equal." He likens this coincidence to a spiritual politic. "And the spirits have always helped me." Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela - they're all there among his muses. But you'd be a fool to mistake soul for cosmic naivety in Scott-Heron.

When a friend suggested his 1975 song, 'Johannesburg', came too early for the Nelson Mandela fever that much later gripped the world, he said: "Well, by the time my song was out Mandela had already been in jail for 12 years. I don't think he would have thought it was early."

Having broken out of a decade of obscurity, Scott-Heron is now working on an autobiography due later this year. It was inspired when he toured the United States with Stevie Wonder, who was working to get Martin Luther King's birthday established as a national day of celebration. Wonder succeeded. "Stevie always sees the positive in things." Spending time with Gil Scott-Heron can do the same.

- Mark Mordue

* This story appeared under the title 'A frail Godfather' in the Sydney Morning Herald dated 01.03.1995. Gil Scott-Heron played two shows at the Metro Theatre in the city: an extraordinary first night at the height of his powers, and a free-jamming and seemingly endless second night where people left wondering what the fuck was going on.