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Remembering Gil Scott-Heron: Outspoken Activist and Musical Legend

The legend passed away in New York on May 27, 2011.

 Legendary artist Gil Scott-Heron was, by many accounts, a pioneering genius. Largely  considered one of the progenitors of modern hip-hop, he was an artist that transcended both genre and medium to speak truth to power, and leaves behind a vast body of work that includes poems, albums and novels. So when it was  announced late last Friday that the man mostly known for his song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” had died at the tender age of 62, may admirers were left grappling with what to make of a man who for decades had shown both strength and vulnerability to his fans.

To be sure, his influence was skewed in later years by his very public personal battles. While many high-profile figures keep their demons locked away from the public eye, Scott-Heron shared his long battle with cocaine addiction, his time in and out of prison, and later, his  battle against HIV. In recent years, be bounced back and teamed up with younger artists like Mos Def to perform at Carnegie Hall, and released his last album “I’m New Here” to rave reviews in 2010.

Longtime Bay Area-based DJ and hip-hop historian  Davey D says it’s that sort of candidness that makes Scott-Heron’s work so important. His battles weren’t his along, but a powerful and sometimes grave reflection of the struggles faced by millions of black people in America and across the globe. We caught up with Davey D to talk about what can be learned from Gil’s rich musical legacy. Davey’s also set to air his own Gil Scott-Heron tribute through Monday, May 31 on his show  “Hard Knock Radio” on 94.1 KPFA. Tune in for more.

On Gil Scott-Heron’s legacy:

First of all, let me say this: Gil Scott-Heron is somebody who’s transcended a number of generations and he’s transcended a number of genres. He wasn’t quite blues, even though he described himself as a blues-ologist. He wasn’t quite jazz even though many people associated him with that. And he was a predecessor to rap, so he wasn’t really in that particular generation, though people could reference them.

On politics:

I think Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets described Gil as being “a prince that was on his own.” And I have to agree with that. He was a man who cut his own cloth. Blazed his own path and had impact in all these different arenas. The biggest impact that Gil really had was that he was one of those people who used his talent and his visibility and fame to speak truth to power unashamedly.

One of the things that people forget is that he spoke on a number of subjects. Some artists, maybe they’ll speak out against the police. But they won’t say anything about immigration. They might speak out on immigration, but they’ll never say anything about misogyny, or with any consistency. If there was something that needed to be spoken on, he spoke on it very frankly, very earnestly, and with a lot of conviction.

I’m listening to his song about the coal miners, how many artists today — black artists — talk about the coal miners? He was on the first to speak out against South African Apartheid. He did that in ‘75 with “(What’s the Word? Johannesburg),” which incidentally was banned  in South Africa.

On his substance abuse:

I guess the in many ways he was a Renaissance Man. They don’t look at him that way because of his substance abuse problems, which he was very public about. I think even that deserves some sort of credibility because how many would really take your addiction to heroin and then do a song like “Home is Where the Hatred Is?” How many people are gonna do a song like “Angel Dust at a time when people were getting strung out on that from coast to coast.