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Gil-Scott Heron and the Black Radical Tradition

Gil Scott-Heron would have been 68 years old on April 1st.

I can still remember Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) coming up behind Scott-Heron and blindfolding him. Scott-Heron never flinched, even when he turned around and saw that it was Ture. That event took place in Washington D.C. at a Black Music Association convention in 1984.

Ture always praised Scott-Heron’s classic, “Johannesburg”; in fact, it was my honor to present Scott-Heron with a Biko-Rodney-Malcolm Award for refusing to perform in Apartheid South Africa. These awards were given out by the Toronto-based Biko Rodney-Malcolm Coalition which was named for South Africa’s Stephen Biko, Guyana’s Walter Rodney, and the United States Omowale El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X). The presentation took place at the Bamboo Club in Toronto.

When Scott-Heron joined the ancestors on May 27, 2011 I was saddened and angered simultaneously. I didn’t appreciate how the corporate dailies in Toronto dealt with the passing of Scott-Heron. Despite the fact that there are many excellent black writers in this city, and that Scott-Heron has family still living in this city, most of the dailies carried wire stories. As Bob Brown of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, a close comrade of Ture wrote me in an email, “Thanks for remembering and respecting Gil; who even at the lowest points in his life, was much better and more noble than most of us.”

I was inside a Cyber Café in Toronto when I learned of the passing of Scott-Heron.  I was surfing the net and accidentally ran across the story on National Public Radio’s site. I immediately informed the late Wesley “Jaribu” Cason who I was with, “Look, Gil is dead”; they were the first words out of my mouth. I must admit that it came as no surprise that he had met his demise. Most of us knew it was just a matter of time before we would lose him. His battle with substance abuse and alcoholism had been on Front Street for many years. My mind flashed back to my first meeting with Scott-Heron in Toronto 1976 and then seeing him open up for Steve Wonder in Montréal in 1980.

I was privileged to see he and the Midnight Band perform at the El Macombo, and I interviewed him for the first time around the time of the 1976 Summer Olympics.That interview was conducted on Charles St. in front of a roomful of Scott-Heron’s crew.  Parts of the interview were broadcast that very night on (Bill) Payne’s Place on CHIN–AM Radio; he had been playing Scott-Heron’s music to death.

At our first meeting, we were interrupted by a visit from Kwame Ture. Many in the movement, however, knew him as Chaka Zulu at that time.  I can remember Scott-Heron’s entourage castigating Ture when he mentioned that he had just come from McDonald’s, having had a bite to eat. He attempted to justify his actions, saying it was a necessity due to time constraints. Scott-Heron’s people would not cut Ture any slack.

Scott-Heron’s music was bubbling at that time. The album, The First Minute of a New Day by Scott-Heron, Brian Jackson and the Midnight Band, had been released in January 1975 on Arista Records. The First Minute of a New Day was the follow up to Winter in America. The Midnight Band was an all-star ensemble featuring: Gil Scott-Heron on vocals, piano, electric piano, and guitar; Brian Jackson on synthesizer, keyboards, flute, and vocals; Bilal Sunni Ali on flute, harmonica, and saxophone; Danny Bowens on bass; Eddie Knowles on percussion and conga; Barnett Williams also on percussion; Victor Brown on percussion and vocals; Charlie Saunders on congas and drums; and Bob Adams and Victor Bowens on tambourines, vocals, and bells.

The promo material Arista Records put out highlighted the fact that Scott-Heron was the son of a Jamaican professional soccer player, Gil Heron, who had made his mark in Scotland. When I raised the question of his father, I was shocked by Scott-Heron who firmly told me, “The Scotts raised me.” I would learn later that, at the time of our interview, he had not yet met his father. Marcus Baram quoted this in his 2014, volume, “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man”. Years after that, I would discover that Gil had reached twenty-six years of age before they would finally meet.  He sang about this on the Bridges album on the track, “Hello Sunday, Hello Road.” Nevertheless, on the night of Scott-Heron’s first Toronto appearance, I did meet several members of his family on his father’s side.

Gil Heron, the father of Gil Scott-Heron joined the ancestors at 86 on November 27, 2008 in Detroit. Heron, who was known as the Black Arrow and was a poet and a professional soccer player.  He was born in Kingston, Jamaica. In 1947 Ebony magazine  carried a story referring to Scott-Heron father as the “Babe Ruth of Soccer”. He was a professional soccer player in Scotland.

I would meet Gil’s older brother Roy Heron who, served with the Norwegian Merchant Navy during World War II and then joined the Canadian army, later moving to Canada, where he became active in black Canadian politics. The last time Scott-Heron performed in Toronto he introduced everyone backstage to “Uncle Roy.”

Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley developed a serious relationship in the1970s.  In fact, Wonder and Bob Marley and The Wailers scheduled a joint tour; unfortunately, Marley became too ill to perform.Scott-Heron and his crew were picked to replace Marley and the Wailers.  I was assigned by the Toronto Star to interview Stevie Wonder. Little did I know that this exclusive interview would lead to my being fired by Canada’s largest newspaper! That, however, is a story for another time. When I arrived in Montréal for the interview and checked into my hotel room, I turned on the radio and discovered that Wonder and Scott-Heron’s concert was being promoted by Dick Griffey of Solar Records.

Richard “Dick” Griffey  (16 NOV 1938 – 24 SEP 2010) was an African record producer and promoter who had founded SOLAR Records, (an acronym for Sound of Los Angeles Records), which followed Motown and Philadelphia International Records during the 1970s and 1980s. As a concert promoter, Griffey arranged bookings for artists including James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, The Jackson Five as well as Stevie Wonder.

Before the concert Scott-Heron would introduce me to his wife, the actress from the television series Room 222, as well as the film Cleopatra Jones, Brenda Sykes. I would find out years later that Sykes is a cousin of my Aunt Rose who is based in Arcadia, Louisiana the place of my birth. Sykes was introduced to Scott-Heron by basetball icon Kareem Abdul Jabbar who served as their best man when they were married in the Jazz giant Wayne Shorter’s home. One of the last times I saw Scott-Heron was when he laughed and said, “I guess you and I are cousins.”

Scott-Heron covered the waterfront: he dealt with race, class, gender, and the environment. “We Almost Lost Detroit” had nothing to do with a race riot.  It was about nuclear power. It was based on a 1975 book by John G. Fuller, which presented a history of Fermi 1, America’s first commercial breeder reactor, with an emphasis on the 1966 partial nuclear meltdown. In the song Scott-Heron raised the question, “…and what would Karen Silkwood say if she was still alive?” Silkwood was a Euro-American labor union activist and chemical technician at the Kerr-McGee plant near Crescent, Oklahoma. Her job was making plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. She died under mysterious circumstances, after investigating claims of irregularities and wrongdoing at the Kerr-McGee plant.

Chairman Mao maintained that there was no contradiction between being a patriot and an internationalist. I think this applies to Scott-Heron. Remember “Liberation Song (The Red, Black and Green)”? He could both sing about the death of Silkwood and call for liberation of South Africa.  Scott-Heron’s repertoire was as wide and deep as the audience that loved him. “He dealt with racism, capitalism, the environment, Pan-Africanism, substance abuse, nuclear power, women’s liberation and just plain ‘silly’ little love songs.” He is a major part of the Radical Black Tradition.

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