Protest poet was more than “The Revolution”

Correction: An earlier version of this column referred to Che Guevara as a Cuban revolutionary. It should have made clear that although Guevara was a major figure in Cuba’s revolution, he was born in Argentina. This version has been corrected.

Courtland Milloy
Columnist May 31, 2011

Back in 2009, I did a telephone interview with the black protest poet Gil Scott-Heron in Harlem and then wrote a column about his thoughts on music, his health problems and his legal troubles. What I didn’t include were the feelings he’d expressed about love, friendship and happiness.

Those warmhearted responses were easily overlooked as I focused on the fiery side of the political lyricist. But in the wake of his death last week at age 62, the sadness I felt was tinged with regret for conveying too few pieces of the man.

Here’s the essence of what I left out.

“You know what has made me the happiest I’ve ever been?” he asked. “Seeing my son and daughter graduate from college. More than wanting them to be educated, I wanted them to be nice people. To see that they have become both is just a wonderful thing.”

I know his son, Rumal Rackley, now 34, who graduated from Hampton University in 1999. Rumal’s mother, Lurma Rackley, is a friend and writer living in Atlanta.


Gil-Scott Heron, shown in 1974, expressed dissatisfaction with an anger over social and political disparity through music and writing. (Craig Herndon/The Washington Post)

He also has three daughters from other relationships: Raqyiyah Kelly Heron, 34, who lives in New York; Gia Scott-Heron, 31, of Los Angeles; and Chegianna Newton, 13, who lives in London and goes by the name Che, after the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.

Family members have not disclosed the cause of death. But some close to him think that an insect bite he got during a recent trip to London became infected and that Scott-Heron, his body already weakened by a plethora of health challenges, might have been slow to treat it.

Scott-Heron was the headliner at the D.C. Poetry Festival the year I interviewed him. We talked about the insightful and inciting lyrics to my favorite songs, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Winter in America,” as well as the album that would be his last, “I’m New Here,” released last year.

But he sounded most excited when talking about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday becoming a national holiday back in 1983. And he thanked Stevie Wonder for providing the soundtrack for that historic accomplishment.

“Stevie had a vision that the rest of us could not see,” he said. Quite a compliment coming from a visionary like Scott-Heron.

Barack Obama’s election as the first black U.S. president was described as “sensational,” but so was “seeing the Mets win the pennant in 1969.”

Along with baseball, the poet who was raised in Tennessee had also expressed a deep love for his mother and grandmother. Had I not been so caught up in my notion of Scott-Heron as the revolutionary critic of global injustice, I might have asked if he also liked apple pie.

Although Scott-Heron was living in New York, he’d spent his most productive years in the District — from 1972 to 1985 — and performed often at Blues Alley in Georgetown. He’d received a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and taught creative writing at what is now the University of the District of Columbia.

This year’s D.C. Poetry festival, to be held in August, has been renamed in his honor. His fans have launched a campaign to honor him posthumously with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Count me in.

“He wanted nothing; he lived very simple . . . but I think he would have loved to receive it,” Charlotte Fox, a close friend and former student of Scott-Heron’s, wrote in an e-mail.

Laughter was high on his list of favorites.

Asked his age, Scott-Heron deadpanned: “I’m as old as I’ve ever been before.” And when the chuckles subsided, he added, “Every once in a while, you live long enough to get the respect that people didn’t want to give while you were trying to become a senior citizen.”

At least Scott-Heron lived long enough for that. Much to his delight, his music has been embraced by a new generation of griot-poets, such as Kanye West and Common.

And guess what song ended up being used on some social networking sites as a soundtrack for the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt? Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

Turned out, the revolution was more Facebooked and Twittered.

How prophetic. Said Scott-Heron back in 2009, “I’m experiencing a revival without even being revived.”

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