By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
In recent years, I'd heard more about the griot-poet Gil Scott-Heron than from him. Troubles with money, health, drugs and the law were said to have muted a man whose words had given rhythmic meaning to the cultural and political upheavals of our time. As rumors of his ruin spread, I figured never to hear him perform again.
So I was delighted to learn that Scott-Heron, 60, will be a featured guest at the D.C. Poetry Festival, which is free and begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. He spoke with me recently by telephone from his home in Harlem about his prophetic poetry and latest visions of the future.
Q. In the early 1970s, you came out with "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," about the erosion of democracy in America. You all but predicted that there would be a revolution in which a brainwashed nation would come to its senses. What do you think now? Did we have a revolution?
A. Yes, the election of President Obama was the revolution.
But that was televised. You said in the poem, "NBC will not be able to predict . . . or report from 29 districts. The revolution will not be televised." But NBC and every other TV network station did just that.
The revolution was a change in thinking, people changing their hearts and minds. This country was at a crossroads and could have gone either way. But the people stopped taking whatever was being handed to them at face value; they stopped putting up with the status quo and started thinking for themselves. The revolution is a mental thing. You did not see it televised.
So what do you think of Obama so far? Already, some on the political left are accusing him of bending over so far to please the political right that he's coming awful close to kissing his own behind, so to speak.
Give him time to make his mark. He's like a young rapper working to find his voice. Don't judge him by his first CD. Remember, Obama did not get us into this mess. You might not agree with his solutions, but there were no solutions before he took office.
You were paroled in May 2007 after serving 10 months for violating a plea agreement in a cocaine possession case. Before that, in 2002, you got caught with some cocaine and did time in prison. Songs like "Angel Dust" and "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" seem to have foreshadowed a drug problem, as well as health problems caused by drugs. For instance, "Home is where I live inside my white powder dreams/Home was once an empty vacuum that's now filled with my silent screams." Is that true?
If you meet somebody who never made a mistake, you help them start a religion. I make mistakes. I got caught with $25 worth of cocaine on an airplane in 2003 and did time for that. But I don't see that making me out to be some Pablo Escobar. Until everybody who has a drink and drives gets their names on a list made up by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, I think they ought to leave people alone for possessing cocaine and marijuana. I'm not the guy who hit-and-runs while drunk or sneaks in your window and takes a television to feed a habit.
You have been called the "Godfather of Rap," and a new generation of hip-hop artists have cited you as a major influence, including Kanye West and Tupac. Who influenced you?
The poet Gwendolyn Brooks led me to the poet Lorraine Hansberry, and from her I learned about the courageous Fannie Lou Hamer. Then there was Langston Hughes. Hughes is the reason I chose to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. That was his alma mater.
As a kid, you won a scholarship to the Fieldston School in New York based on writing talent, then attended Lincoln, where you wrote a novel your junior year. After that, you earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University, then came to Washington to teach creative writing at what is now the University of the District of Columbia. You stayed in the Washington area from 1972 to about 1985, your most productive years. Now, after a hiatus of sorts, you're back performing regularly, most recently at Blues Alley and the 9:30 Club. On Friday, you'll be at the D.C. Poetry Festival along with D.C. Poet Laureate Dolores Kendrick and Abiodun Oyewole, co-founder of The Last Poets. You obviously like D.C.
I get a lot of political insight from being in Washington. It started in 1974 with "H2O Gate Blues," which was my way of explaining to people outside the Beltway what Watergate was really all about. I've been inspired during every visit since.
So which of your works do you like most?
I don't listen to myself. My writing is for other people to make their favorite. I only hope that what people hear affects them more than what they hear about it.
My favorite is "Winter in America." In it you say, "And now it's winter. And all of the healers have been killed. Or been betrayed." What season are we in now?
"Winter in America" started the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Then, in 2004, when Barack did his speech at the Democratic National Convention, that was Ground Hog Day -- the day that predicts whether you are going to have more winter or if you will be able to plant new seeds on the first day of spring. Before 2004, things were looking pretty grim. But now there's a ray of sunshine that comes from having new people with progressive ideas running the country. I'm not saying that spring is here yet. But there is a warming trend, and it's a good thing to see. I didn't know I would be around to see it, and I'm happy that I am.