In 1986, as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was being inaugurated in Cleveland, Ohio, I was touring Europe with the artist, poet, author and civil rights activist Gil Scott-Heron. At that time, you wouldn’t have readily associated someone like Gil with the term rock’n’roll. In fact, people were struggling to find any genre name that could encapsulate this urban griot’s unique and diverse repertoire. Gil would often joke that if you wanted to find his music in the record store, “look for a category that says miscellaneous”; true innovators don’t fit into established genres but create them.
Nevertheless, Gil is being inducted this year, a mark of how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has diversified and incorporated other musical forms, including hip-hop. Public Enemy were inducted in 2013 and this year Jay-Z and LL Cool J will join the ranks along with Gil.
This is a poignant and meaningful juxtaposition: Gil became known as the godfather of rap because of his application of poetry over tribal beats, in the style popularised by his predecessors the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets. Gil’s debut 1970 album for Bob Theil’s label, Flying Dutchman – entitled Small Talk at 125th and Lenox – delivered the now iconic proto-rap The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, since appearing everywhere from the Denzel Washington boxing movie The Hurricane to Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, from Grand Theft Auto to a Nike commercial.
Born in Chicago on April Fools’ Day 1949, Gil spent much of his childhood with his grandma Lillie Scott in Jackson, Tennessee, after his father Gil Heron left for Scotland to become Celtic FC’s first black player. It was in Tennessee that Gil learned the blues on an old piano that Lillie bought him; Memphis was within radio range and, with help from the black stations that were always right at the end of the dial, Gil honed his craft during that era of racial segregation, governed by the Jim Crow laws. This American apartheid system would manifest itself in Gil’s repertoire in songs such as The Klan, and drive Gil to join the movement Artists United Against Apartheid which eventually helped to free Nelson Mandela and bring down the South African white minority colonialist government. Gil took the struggles of racial segregation and combined them with the blues to create an ambient blend of protest, pain and melody that he referred to as “bluesology” – the science of the blues.
After a further two albums for Flying Dutchman Records, Pieces of a Man and Free Will, Gil had his biggest hit for the Strata-East label with the track The Bottle bringing him to the attention of Clive Davis, who signed Gil when he launched Arista Records. Gil had moved to New York, where he lived in a Hispanic neighbourhood, learned Spanish and incorporated the plight of the Hispanic community in his repertoire, with songs such as Alien (Hold on to Your Dreams) about Hispanic immigrants and Jose Campos Torres, about the Mexican American man whose murder by Houston police led to a riot when the convicted officers got probation and a $1 fine.
Often collaborating with Brian Jackson, Gil delivered nine albums for Arista between 1975 and 1982, the last of which, Moving Target, was my own introduction to his music. In 1984 I was 18 and had just emerged from nine years in local authority care. My care experience had been brutal and traumatic. I was taken into care after my Guyanese father suffered a stroke and was paralysed, and my Welsh mother struggled to cope. Having been locked in solitary confinement, physically beaten, racially abused, stabbed and deprived of formal schooling for years, I needed healing and direction. Gil provided both after a chance meeting backstage, when he played Liverpool’s Royal Court theatre in 1984. Gil took me on tour with the band, mentored me in the business and helped me to become literate through poetry. This enabled me over the 27 years we worked together to become a performance poet with my band Malik & the O.G’s, and to go to college and university. I achieved a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and today, 10 years after Gil’s passing, I’m reading for a PhD at the University of Cambridge with a full scholarship.
Gil taught me to “study Black history, in order to know where you’re coming from, so you’ll know where you’re going”. As such, I traced my own ancestry back through the slave plantations of Demerara, which is the subject of my PhD – I published my findings on the BBC and landed a two-book deal with HarperCollins.
In 2010 we embarked on what would be the last tour to promote Gil’s final album, I’m New Here – I drove Gil for most of the UK leg and acted as his personal assistant for the entirety of that European tour. We spent some great quality time together and reminisced about how far I’d come since that fateful day backstage at the Royal Court theatre in 1984.
Gil died shortly after, in 2011. I told my story to the Guardian, and that article formed the basis of my memoir Letters to Gil. It tells the story of how the state failed me but then Gil saved me from a worse fate; how his kind intervention at such a critical juncture changed the trajectory of my life, from the streets to the highest seat of learning; how he used spoken word to heal me and salve the emotional wounds that society and a racist care system had inflicted upon me as a black child growing up in the 1970s and 80s. But beyond his indelible imprint on my own life, Gil’s influence spans more than the music and literature he wrote – he worked tirelessly for justice for the downtrodden and destitute among us and teased out society’s humanity from beneath its apathy.
In 2012 Gil was posthumously granted a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys. Had he not died the year before, he might have stood next to Diana Ross as she received hers that same year. It is fitting also that his name will be called this year next to – among others – Tina Turner, as Gil’s influence continues to permeate all kinds of music. As his protege, I will endeavour to take the baton from him, as he was passed it from the Last Poets, as they were passed it from the streets of Harlem, which were passed it from the cotton fields of Georgia, which were passed it from the griots of Africa, until freedom and justice is achieved – and the cipher is complete.
Letters to Gil is out now, published by William Collins, £20.