KEXP Documentaries: Poets and Music – Gil Scott-Heron

The first time I really listened to Gil Scott-Heron was late at night while tuned in to DJ Riz on KEXP.  Riz played “Work for Peace.”  The lyrics articulated things I felt, but didn’t know how to say.  With all the intelligence oozing from this song, there was also a warmth, a sameness to the delivery by this deep-voiced poet.  Empathy, I think, is what was communicated. And concern…

Americans no longer fight to keep their shores safe,
Just to keep the jobs going in the arms making workplace.
Then they pretend to be gripped by some sort of political reflex,
But all they’re doing is paying dues to the Military Industrial Complex.
The Military and the Monetary,
The Military and the Monetary,
The Military and the Monetary.
The Military and the Monetary,
get together whenever they think its necessary,
They turn our brothers and sisters into mercenaries, they are turning the planet into a cemetery.
The Military and the Monetary, use the media as intermediaries,
they are determined to keep the citizens secondary, they make so many decisions that are arbitrary…

If everyone believed in Peace the way they say they do,
we’d have Peace.
The only thing wrong with Peace,
is that you can’t make no money from it…

Peace is not the absence of war,
it is the absence of the rules of war and the threats of war and the preparation for war.
Peace is not the absence of war,
it is the time when we will all bring ourselves closer to each other,
closer to building a structure that is unique within ourselves
because we have finally come to Peace within ourselves…

I don’t want to sound like no late night commercial,
but its a matter of fact that there are thousands of children all over the world
in Asia and Africa and in South America who need our help.
So this is a song about tommorrow and about how tommorrow can be better. if we all,
“Each one reach one, Each one try to teach one”.
Nobody can do everything,
but everybody can do something,
everyone must play a part,
everyone got to go to work, Work for Peace.

After hearing that song, I found out that Gil Scott-Heron was the genius behind the song/spoken word piece “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, a track that influenced hip-hop artists from Mos Def to Tupac to Franti to Kanye.  And that influence was one of intelligence. Of talking directly to the powers that be.  With respect and humor. Released in 1970, it’s still one of the most relevant political songs out there.

Twenty years after “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil Scott-Heron used the same format of poetry with music to send a message to the rap artists who claimed to be influenced by him.  In “Message to the Messengers,” Heron calls out to artists to be responsible with their words:

And I ain’t comin’ at you with no disrespect
All I’m sayin’ is that you damn well got to be correct
Because if you’re gonna be speakin’ for a whole generation
And you know enough to try and handle their education
Make sure you know the real deal about past situations

It ain’t just repeatin’ what you heard on the local TV stations
The first sign is peace, tell all them gun totin’ young brothas
That the man is glad to see us out there killin’ one another
We raised too much hell when they was shootin’ us down
So they started poisoning our minds tryin’ to jerk us all around

And they tell us they got to come in and control our situation
Young rappers, one more suggestion before I get out of your way
But I appreciate the respect you give me and what you got to say
I’m sayin’ protect your community and spread that respect around

I think the young folks need to know, that things don’t go both ways
You can’t talk respect of every other song or just every other day
What I’m speakin’ on now is the raps about the women folks
On one song she’s your African Queen on the next one she’s a joke
And you ain’t said no words that I haven’t heard, but that ain’t no compliment
It only insults eight people out of ten and questions your intelligence
Four letter words or four syllable words won’t make you important
It’ll only magnify how shallow you are and let everybody know it…

Remember…keep the nerve
Keep the nerve
Keep the nerve
Keep the nerve
…I’m talkin’ about peace

In researching Gil Scott-Heron for this radio story, I was shocked to find out that in his personal life he’s had a long struggle with drugs and has served a bunch of jail time.  It’s hard to see your heroes fail, especially in the areas they preach so effectively about.  Do these facts contradict the sincerity of Gil Scott-Heron’s words? Or do they just drive home the humanity, the pitfalls that all of us stumble into?

In 2010 Gil Scott-Heron put out his first album in 15 years, I’m New Here.  It’s interesting but doesn’t reach the heights of earlier work.  It’s more about personal trials, rather than community.  Gil Scott-Heron named the album “I’m New Here” not because he feels like a new person, but because his work is reaching a whole new audience.

Listen to this KEXP Documentary:

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KEXP Documentaries are created by Michele Myers with assistance from John Felthous, Tiffany Grobelski, Mary Janisch and Executive Producer Kevin Cole. If you would like to follow along more closely in the creation of these radio stories, we post research materials, songs and videos on our Facebook page and on Twitter.

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