Whitey On The Moon or The Revolution Is Magnificient
The death of Gil Scott-Heron – willing musician, reluctant politician?
Words by Ernest Drake
On may, 27th 2011 one of the most remarkable black musicians, Gil Scott-Heron, passed away. Unlike most obituaries in the media I want to stick to Gil’s early tradition of dismantling instead of writing about the obvious.
The radical poet and his songs
For his early period Heron was kind of a musical documentalist of black communities and the liberation movement. Mostly the movement in America of course, but in a song like “Johannesburg” he also picked up on protests against apartheid in South Africa.
In fact most of his tunes dealt with the realities of a rather poor and working class environment. In “The Bottle” he critisized growing alcoholism within black communities, while “Whitey on the Moon” addressed the absurdity of a state that proudly claimed to be paying for the first successful moon mission that cost millions while ghettos were rotting (“I can’t pay no doctor bill but Whitey’s on the moon.”).
And while most classic Soul-tunes either refered to happy loving or love troubles, Gil Scott-Heron talked about harsh reality once more in “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” – which deals with the subject of escapism in drug abuse and is open to interpretation about what he defines as home; it could either be a real place to live like a house or flat or a state of mind or the United States (or a region of it – like the south of North America) during the Vietnam war and race riots or during race migration while the first world war was happening.
In “No Knock” he attacked a police law (no knock warrant) and the methods of US authorities against the Black Panther Party („No knocked on my brother Fred Hampton, bullet holes all over the place. No knocked on my brother Michael Harris and jammed a shotgun against his skull.”).
In his youth he had already published two novels (“The Vulture” [turned into a song later] and “The Nigger Factory”) around the time when he attended Lincoln University. A large influence on his
writings was Langston Hughes – probably the first african-american writer who got huge recognition (one of Langston’s last works, published in 1967, was a book by the title “The Panther And The
Lash”, dealing with the new black radicalism and resurgent race issues).
Scott-Heron, as a black man into literature, with some of his people not even being able to read or without the dough to afford many books, decided to fill the gap by getting back to africa’s oral history traditions – just as the Last Poets did. From then on he became an agitator of struggle, singing and rapping to the music of his band. Sometimes only accompanied by percussions – an easier setup for street performances as Last Poets also approved.
When you listen to some of his early percussion and vocal tunes there is definitely a certain blackness that was usually more part of the Free Jazz-scene than it was present in most soul music of the day. The panthers prefered to use a more scary to whitey-sound in their short propaganda/documentation films than the more mainstream-suitable soul sounds – like Bayeté’s “Free Angela” for example and even more abstract stuff. Heron and Last Poets might’ve been fitting as well.
Compared to for example Marvin Gaye’s “What’s going on”-album (definitely one of the most important works in the field of socio-political criticism in soul music) Gil Scott-Heron’s lyric was a lot rougher. Gaye had his troubles getting the release of his album through at Motown – with a longplayer like Heron’s “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox” it would’ve never worked.
Like many artists not connected to a movement anymore, Gil Scott-Heron’s music faced a change after the demise of the Panthers. He more and more painted a picture of his person as just “a pianoplayer from Tennessee”. Which is really only half the story. In fact Heron canceled a date in Tel Aviv even on his last tour in 2010 (after disappearing almost completely for the previous 15 years) because of the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli authorities.
But Scott-Heron never joined any political organization – not even the panthers. His attitude as an artist was to be available to anyone doing something positive for the black community.
A comrade of mine once stated that “it’s hard to be a good musician and politician at the same time” and indeed writing, producing and performing is the largest part of your life if you are a musician. And nothing is harder than to convince an artist to join any party (except maybe for one with loud music and dancing).
Struggle and escapism
Even Huey P. Newton – as one of the BPP-leaders – became a victim of the FBI’s plan to destroy the militant black movement of the late 60s, early 70s through a drug flood. This worked out fantastically – at least from the viewpoint of the US government, capital and all their serpents. It destroyed a radical emancipation process (and therefor threat to the state). Instead of teaching kids true history all went back (or even got worse) to the picture of the black ghetto most have in their mind today: gangsters, pimps, whores, huge cars, alcohol, cocaine, crack, all the cliches – you name it. Superfly got high.
The structures of the BPP were a mixture of maoist theory, anarchist spontaneity and the simple will to change poor living conditions – mostly radical reformism rather than revolutionary politics. The general problem (I also spoke to Peter Hagen about this in an interview for the current issue of the Soul/Funk-mag “Uptown Strut”) of the whole movement of the late 60s into the 70s – from the vietnam-protests to the Panthers – was their theoretical weakness.
Black artists that lived through the period of the civil rights movement and the following Panther-era didn’t have a consistent opinion about what was going on and what should be done about it –
which was no wonder since even most political leaders had more of an idea what they were against than what form of society to work for.
Of course if you were black it would’ve been pretty strange not to agree on at least part of the goals of the movement. But the attitudes of James Brown or Berry Gordy – let’s call it a vision of black capitalism – and that of the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron – rather a black revolutionary attitude – differed. The first two wanted to be televised all the time while the others preferred to stay away from the flattening of their ideas by the mainstream media. That attitude was kind of made manifest by Heron through his song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (although the main point he wanted to make was to drag black folk away from their role as just being the passive consumer).
And among blacks in general that were attracted to the rather revolutionary approach there were ones that were a bit more leftwing and worked actively to promote and build guerilla warfare – mostly also the more radical separatists and those close to ideas of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X (during his Nation Of Islam-period). And some more open minded that wanted to work with radicalized whites like John Sinclair (manager of the MC5 who had the idea to bring the White Panthers into life) and some celebrities – for only a short time – Marlon Brando, as well as radical student organizations (like the SDS). Gil Scott-Heron belonged to those opposed to whites joining the BPP as he stated in an interview with the party’s newspaper in his early days.
Class struggle, although mentioned by Newton, Seale and the rest of the panthers’ leadership didn’t exactly mean to build up a revolutionary socialist party.
The only theoretical foundation was the so called “red book” or “Mao bible” (as it was mostly refered to in Germany at the time).
Many protestors devoted themselves to the hope that the mistaken liberalization of Stalinism through Mao would bring a change. While the number of Trotskyists in Germany was pretty low in ’68, there was definitely a couple more of ‘em overseas. But they only ever seem to have been able to win over some of the radicalized white students, not many blacks.
And the trouble with Trotzkyism around that time was that is was kinda stuck. Although Trotsky was opposed to Stalin he was never able to realize within his lifespan that the October revolution
had ultimately failed and there was no way to bring power into the hands of workers commitees without another revolution. It took the analysis of Tony Cliff (born palestinian jew that build up
the Socialist Workers Party in UK) who went to study in Russia as an orthodox trotzkyist in the begining and came back as an international socialist that knew workers power and real democracy had
to break with illusions about the eastern block states. Something the orthodox trotzkyists in the US obviously weren’t able to get across during the 60s.
So there were black and white stalisnists and trotzkyists that still supported Cuba. Not what I’d call a clear opposition. So a real socialist party with a strong theory didn’t exist to take influence on the political movement of the 60s and 70s in the US.
But history is unforgiving – mistakes that are made can’t be ereased (“the revolution will be no re-run, brothers”). Who can say what would’ve happened if the radicality of the Panthers had gotten in touch with the real tradition of international socialism? It could’ve doubled the explosive energy and let the BPP break with seperatist ideas. And with more than just partitial cooperation with white protestors this could’ve really been turning into a revolution, which would’ve been a step further from riots and protest marches or patrolling the streets to control pigs and making the beginning of an alternative infra-structure really become the beginning of a new state. The attempt to build up said social infrastructure (with schools, hospitals, job agencies and communal kitchens) came into being but within the capitalist structure it just wasn’t made to endure.
So the revolution didn’t happen. And with the US government not being able to destroy the BPP by simply arresting and killing Panther-leaders (as GSH wrote about in “No Knock”) and fulfilling the COINTELPRO-program, the FBI went on to overflow black communities with cocaine, heroin and weed.
It is a drama that exactly those who worked to liberate their minds (to quote Malcom X) – fell prey to drug abuse. And Gil Scott-Heron was no exception, he sniffed shitloads of cocaine up his
conk (“home is where I live inside my white powder dreams”) and later went on to the worst and most destructive drug that ever happened to black communities; crack.
I guess he just couldn’t bear the pain of demise. First the revolution went out of sight with the Panthers slipping, later the musical career faded away with the termination of his Arista-label-deal.
Ain’ no rapper
And then the children of the lost black revolt came up celebrating him as the inventor of rap while mostly running after the negative picture of what was left of black culture.
Most rap MC’s sang about themselves and their abilities. In early hip hop the concept of socio-critical lyrics had been constructed at the drawing board of Sylvia Robinson (who mamanged the Sugar Hill-label). Grandmaster Flash stated in many later interviews that his and his crew’s interest was having fun at block parties. It required a bit more time until a political concept came from a hip hop act (like Public Enemy) of their own volition.
Gil doesn’t seem to have been satisfied with black capitalism, neither with a white one or capitalism in general. And then these youngsters, with their bling and new sneakers, came running…
Kanye West praised GSH by quoting him “the revolution will be live” – a guy that wrote a tune about juwellery and had to be taught what blood diamonds were first! He didn’t know his brothers in
south africa suffered for that flashy grit. No wonder Gil didn’t feel that honored by a tribute from fellas like him.
It must’ve reminded him of Isaac Hayes (who later became a scientology-member) and his gold-plated cadillac, collar, mink and all that.
GSH often pointed out that his ideals were different than theirs. He wasn’t happy with the role of being called “godfather of rap”.
Of what interest is self-praise and materialist superficiality to a guy that is into literature, music and was into revolution but never much into (m)tv?
A modest dude that lived in a small appartment in Harlem most of his life and never had a house on the hill – I can relate to that very much. And I hope socially and politically aware artists of today can bear the abstinence of struggles better than he did. But with massive protests and strikes in Egypt, Syria, Wisconsin and Spain in sight I’m pretty confident the abstinence in some places might end in the time to come.
Gil Scott-Heron remains in our memories and on our turntables as a fantastic, inspired musician, dedicated to struggle like not many others.
Rest In Peace, Gil!