“Our vibration is based on creative solidarity: trying to influence the black community toward the same kind of dignity and self-respect that we all know is necessary to live…We are trying to put out survival kits on wax”
– Gil Scott Heron
The Black Arts Movement (B.A.M) was the cultural wing of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 70s. One of the most influential voices of this era was Gil Scott Heron. Heron is a composer, pianist, poet, author, singer, historian, social activist, and musician that delivered oral snapshots of the struggles Black community for four decades. He followed the African oratory tradition of the Jeli (griot) as he recited poetry, history, and expressed the concerns of the working class. I will argue that Heron’s works are contemporary examples of the Jeli tradition by analyzing his philosophy, oratory style, and artistic form.
Early Life and Education
Heron was born on April 1, 1949 in Chicago, Illinois to Bobby and Giles ‘Gil’ Heron. His mother was a college graduate and a librarian. On the side Mrs. Hero n sang with The New York Oratorial Society encouraging Heron’s early music interest. Heron’s father was a professional soccer player and the first African man (Jamaican) to play for Glascow Football Club (Glickman,2008).
After Heron parents divorced he moved to Jackson, Tennessee with his grandmother. While living with his grandmother Heron was introduced to Langston Hughes’s column in The Chicago Defender (Geesling, 2007). His grandmother encouraged Heron’s artistic development by teaching him how to read, write, and play music. Heron was one of three African children selected to integrate a public elementary school in Jackson, but the constant heckling proved too much for Heron. After the death of his grandmother Heron moved to a Hispanic neighborhood in the Bronx, NY. The experiences in this multicultural neighborhood gave Heron a message that transcended national racial and international cultural barriers, and proclaimed the rights of all of humanity.
Heron enrolled at Dewitt High School and later transferred to Ethical Cultural Feldstone High School. At Feldstone Heron received his ‘formal’ education in the arts. Heron exhibited his artistic potential early compiling his first volume of poetry at the age of 13 (Glickman, 2008). Heron entered Lincoln University in Pennsylvania following in the footsteps of Langston Hughes. While at Lincoln Heron studied literature especially the works of the Harlem Renaissance.
He dropped out of school after his first year to write his first novel The Vulture (1970) followed by a volume of poetry entitled Small Talk at 125th & Lenox (1970) later that year. Despite not satisfying the degree requirements at Lincoln Heron was able to enter John Hopkins University and earn his M.A. in Creative Writing. Over the next 30 years Heron would publish one more novel The Nigger Factory (1972) and three volumes of poetry Mind of Gil Scott Heron (1979); So Far, So Good (1990); and Now and Then: the poems of Gil Scott Heron (2001). Currently, Heron is working on a novel entitled The Last Holiday a reflection on his work with Stevie Wonder to make Dr. M.L. King, Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday.
I don’t think they ready for this ‘Jeli’
The Jeli, Jelimuso, Sba, Jenga, or ‘griot’ is a master teacher. He acts as a little newspaper, social critique, cultural warrior, and healer (Hillard, 2002). The Jeli delivers his message through oratory and musical forms developed by his cultural group. Their work is often said to be divinely inspired as they consider teaching their way of life. Jeli transmits culture, knowledge, comedy, compassion, and they always tell the truth (Hillard, 2002). These characteristics often place the Jeli in opposition to the ‘state’ as he is the voice of the people.
No other artist from the Black Arts Movement fits the description of the Jeli more than Heron. Kontar (2001) wrote:
Gil Scott-Heron is a culture bearer. A Griot in the truest sense of the word, whose message must be transmitted from generation to generation in the same way in which my mentor revealed Heron’s work to me. There are few artists who emit this type of importance to their own culture and beyond. Gil Scott-Heron is one of them (1)
Having longevity, endless creativity, and mastery of the language Heron has produced 23 albums, 3 novels, and 3 volumes of poetry of a 40 years career. Heron possessed the personal conviction necessary for a Jeli, which allowed him to act as the voice of the people. Heron did most of his work during a time when the struggle had slowed tremendously after the murder of the most powerful voices of the Civil Rights and Black Power struggles. Deker (1993) writes:
It was around the middle seventies when I first heard this brazen, young Black man’s voice. He was angry! We were angry! I was angry! Angry over the fact that it was a few years ago that they had just taken from us our black shining Prince (Malcolm X). He was mad. We were mad. I was mad! Mad over the fact that our struggle for freedom had come to a screeching halt. He was loud! Loud and determined to be heard. And I heard him…Gil possesses the gifted ability to put into words the things that resided within me. He possessed the courage to stand up and say what was wrong with this country, with this society. He was loud. He was uncompromising. He was convicted. (53)
Heron’s (1993) work was a reflection of the social consciousness of the time and love of for the people:
A little over 21 years ago I was introduced into what is laughingly referred to as civilization…I am a Black man dedicated to expression; expression of the joy and pride of blackness. I consider myself neither a poet, composer or musician. These are merely tools used by sensitive men to carve out a piece of beauty or truth that they hope may lead to peace and salvation.
This is typical of the Jeli’s sense of responsibility to the people. Heron (2008) also notes the African Ancestors as the source of his message:
In truth I call what I have been granted the opportunity to share gifts…I would like to personally claim to be the source of the melodies and ideas that have come through me, but that is just the point. Many of the shapes of sound and concepts have come upon me from no place I can trace: Note and chords I’d never learned, thoughts and pictures I’d never seen. And all as clear as a sky untouched by cloud or smog or smoke or haze. Suddenly. Magically. As if transferred to me without effort. (3)
For a person to become a Jeli he has to fit these criteria, however, Heron’s ability to satisfy these requirements on such a broad scale with the imperialist cultural and social hegemonic structure speaks to Heron’s immense talent and deep sense of spirituality.
Roots of Gil Scott-Heron’s Art
Heron’s early childhood interest in music and poetry were nurtured and encouraged by his family and community. As Heron matured he adopted techniques from his favorite African American writers, poets, and musicians from the Harlem Renaissance. He recalls (2007):
I had spent a lot of time in the black stacks at Lincoln and read up on things that had happened during the Harlem Renaissance and its background. And I studied under James Saunders Redding [who] was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. He taught black literature there and he taught it in two parts; the first part began in the 1780s. (4)
Langston Hughes had the most influence on Heron style. In addition to reading Hughes’s column in The Chicago Defender Heron wrote a senior thesis on the famous writer. Hughes also influenced Heron’s use humor in his works. Heron (2007) states:
The fact that like, it’s easier to laugh than it is to cry and we have a lot to cry about-but there was a great deal of humor in his writing and a great deal of laughter in my life…The humor that Langston Hughes had as a part of his make-up and a part of his character came through in his writing; they were things that I felt were very important to have as an artist. I’m saying that [humor] was a direct link between me and Langston Hughes. (4)
Heron’s humor follows the West African and African American tradition of ‘playing the dozens’ where the speaker ranks, cracks, sparks, heats, or roasts the opponent.
Another component of Heron’s music that he adopted from the Harlem Renaissance is the ‘Blues’. Heron (2007) continues:
Over the course of the Harlem Renaissance they always refer back to the blues, and you know, living in Tennessee, the blues artists were the ones I was most familiar [with] from the radio.
The Blues is considered the ‘purest’ reflection of African American experience in music form. Wilson (1981) supports:
It is hard to define the music. Suffice it to say that it is music that breathes and touches. That connects. That is in itself a way of being, separate and distinct from any other. (16)
Heron was aware of the power of the Blues. He would combine poetry with various components of jazz and the blues to make a new genre of music, ‘bluesology’. Bluesology in Heron’s view was the ultimate medium to express his message of discontent. Heron (2008) explains:
What bluesology is supposed to say how it feels. The articulation isn’t melodic, exotic, or erotic; it aint none of those things. It’s that they all come together and relate what it feels like. I play what it feels like. (1)
A true master teacher Heron was able to create new creative spaces for future African American musicians, singers, producers, and rappers. In the tradition of the Jeli Heron transmitted cultural forms and history in his art. Heron refers to himself as a ‘Bluesician’ and claims that ‘Bluesology’ is a methodology for creating music that helps all of humanity.
The Bicentennial Blues
Heron released the album It’s Your World in 1976. The album was headlined by the hit song the “Bicentennial Blues”. Heron’s (1976) second live poetry recording was a roasting session for past and present politicians:
We attempted to define the lie detector blues. Caught by Mayor Frank Rizzo. I understand he is sick currently. We send our coldest regards.
Humor was used to lighten the mood of the audience while subtly drawing the crowd’s attention to the opponent’s weaknesses or crimes. Heron (1976) critiques Ronald Reagan later in the performance:
Ronald Reagan it (idea of justice) got by him. Holly-weird. Acted like an actor. Acted like a liberal. Acted like General Franco when he acted like a governor. Now he acts like somebody might vote for him.
Heron’s performance is continually interrupted by eruptions of laughter from the audience. He later referred to Gerald Ford as ‘Oatmeal Man’ and Jimmy Carter as ‘Skippy’.
The “Bicentennial Blues” is more than a stand-up comedy act. Heron delivers a very serious message between his scathing critiques of politicians. Heron (1976) gives a history and origins of the ‘Blues’:
Why should the blues be so at home here. Well America provided the atmosphere…The blues was born on the beaches where the slave ships docked. The blues was born on the slave man’s auction block…The blues grew up in Nat Turner’s visions. The blues grew up in Harriet Tubman’s courage. The blues grew up in small town deprivation. The blues grew up in big city isolation. The blues grew up in the white man’s nightmares. The blues grew up in the blues singing of Betsy, Billy, and Ma. The blues grew up in Satchmo’s horn, on Duke’s piano, in Langston’s Poetry, and Roberson’s baritone.
Heron defines the Blues as the musical form of the everyday struggles of the people against racism and oppression.
Heron explains that the evolution of the Blues runs parallel to the suffering of African American as the United States evolved into a nation. Heron (1976) says, “the blues remembers everything America forgot”. He also notes contradictions between America’s promise of justice, peace, and equality and it’s history of racism oppressing Africans:
The truth relates to 200 years of people and ideas getting by. It got by George Washington. The ideas of justice, liberty, and equality got cold by George Washington. Slave owner general. Ironic the father of this country should be a slave owner. The father of this country a slave owner. Having got by him, it made it easier to get by his henchmen. The creators of this liberty.
Heron brings attention to the racism ingrained in the history of the United States as the ‘forefathers’ of the country were slave owners and defenders of ‘white supremacy’.
Whitey on the Moon
On the hit album The Revolution will not be Televised (1974) Heron dropped another classic entitled “Whitey on the Moon”. This track critiqued the economic priorities of the government in light of huge allocation of federal funds towards the space program in comparison to the basic needs of the people. Heron (1974) states:
A rat done bit my sister Nell, with whitey on the moon. Her face and arms begin to swell, and whitey’s on the moon. I can’t pay no doctor bills, while whitey’s on the moon…no hot water, no toilets, no lights, but whitey’s on the moon…How come there ain’t no money here? Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon.
Heron also questions how this enormous spending affected the everyday lives of the people in some cases making life much more difficult. He (1974) continues:
The man jus’ upped my rent last night, cause whitey’s on the moon…I wonder why he is uppi’ me? Cause whitey’s on the moon. I wuz already payin’ ‘im fifty a week, with whitey on the moon. Taxes takin’ my whole damn check, junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck, the price of food is going up, An’ as if all that shit wuzn’t enough: a’ rat done bit my sister Nell, with whitey on the moon…Was all that money I made las’ year, for whitey on the moon?
Heron acts as a social critique and public newspaper that informs the people of the correlation between the rise of the price of living and the development of new government programs geared towards morally irrelevant projects. The space program is compared to the impoverished living conditions of Black people where a child can be bit by rats, and the parents can’t afford to pay for medical treatment.
The Black and Latino communities during the 60s and 70s were concerned with violent acts of racism being carried out by hate groups. However, the most notorious group was the city police departments. Issues with the police were compounded by new ‘No Knock’ laws that gave police the right to forcefully enter a citizen’s home without warning. Heron wrote a track entitled “No Knock” (1974) that questions the creation of the law:
You explained it to me I must admit, but just for the record you were talking shit. So don’t rap about ‘no knock’ being legislative for the people you have always hated in the hell-hole you—we call home…For my protection? Who’s gon protect me from you? The likes of you? The nerve of you?
This law resulted in a violation of many citizens’ rights, and the eventual death of several people including Fred Hampton. Heron (1974) continues:
No knock the man will say to keep that man from beating his wife. No knock the man will say, to protect people from themselves… No Knock on my brother Fred Hampton. Bullet holes all over the place. No knowck on my brother Micheal Harris and jammed a shotgun against his skull.
Heron’s relentless verbal onslaught on governmental agencies, policies, and other political figures earned him the honor of being named to the F.B.I.’s ‘Counter intelligence Program’. Heron later reflected on this, “I guess with the stuff we was talking about they would want to investigate me…(laughing).”
Lady Day and John Coltrane
One of the chief duties of the Jeli is healing. This included healing ignorant minds, trampled egos, and worn down spirits. John Coltrane and Billy Holiday were major influences of Heron. On the album Pieces of a Man (1971) he dedicated a song to them, “Lady Day and John Coltrane”, that explained the healing properties of the Blues. Heron (1971) chants:
Ever feel kinda of down and out and don’t know just what to do? Livin’ all of days in darkness, let the sun shine through. Ever fell that somehow, somewhere you lost your way? And if you don’t get help you won’t make it through the day. You could call on Lady Day! You could call on John Coltrane! They’ll wash your troubles, your troubles away.
Like Hughes, Heron believed the blues could be used to heal the soiled emotions of the people. Heron understood that the people were suffering from lack of self esteem, helplessness, and materialism. He (1971) continues:
Plastic people with plastic minds on their way to plastic homes. There’s no beginning, there ain’t no ending just on and on and on and on and… It’s all because we’re so afraid to say that we’re alone. Until our hero rides in, rides in on his saxophone. You could call on Lady Day! You could call on John Coltrane! They’ll wash your troubles, your troubles away.
Heron recognizes these musicians as ‘hero/shero’ because their music soothed the stresses of everyday life.
Message to the Messengers
Heron’s no nonsense style gave birth to the newest contribution to the African music tradition, Rap. Considered the ‘Godfather’ rap, or the ‘proto-rapper’, Heron is a noted influence of several prominent Rap artist including Tupac Shakur (2Pac), Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. (Common), and Kanye Omari West (Kanye West) (Kammer, 2002). However, during the early 1990s violence in the African community rose to alarming levels as young African men murdered each other as a result of being disenfranchised, living in impoverish communities, the drug trade, and gangs violence. The elders of the African community traced this back to the lyrics in ‘Gangsta Rap’.
As a response Heron composed a track “Message to the Messengers” on the album Spirits (1990). Heron (1990) called on Rappers to be aware of their role as teachers, and the affect they had on children:
I aint comin’ at you with no disrespect. All I’m sayin’ is you damn well got to be correct. Because if you’re gonna be speaking for a whole generation. And you know enough to handle their education. Be sure you know the real deal about past situations. And ain’t just repeating what you heard on a local T.V.
Heron also questioned whether Rappers were masters of their art and language. Heron (1990) critiques ‘irresponsible’ Rappers:
They (Rappers) need to study music, and blending those same words into the music. There’s not a lot of humor. They use a lot of slang and colloquiums, and you don’t really see inside the person. Instead you get a lot of posturing. (5)
Heron’s critique of ‘Rap’, in my opinion, provide validity to his role as a Jeli as he demanded excellence in the art form and called on Rappers to be cognizant of their influence on the younger generation as teachers and spokesmen.
Heron was a master teacher and revolutionary artist. The title of Jeli does not find a more willing host than Heron in the 20th century. His body of work, multiplicity of forms, and oratory abilities put him in a different class. Most importantly, Heron transmitted knowledge of African culture and history in his works. His art transcended racial, class, and sex barriers and exposed the failures of America’s democracy to the world. A revolutionary artist in the truest sense and a traditional Jeli in the present tense.