He never claimed the title “Godfather of Hip Hop,” but for our generation of music artists, he fathered the best in us.

Gil Scott-Heron, one of a rare breed of popular revolutionary poets, fits into the class of artists from the second Black American arts renaissance–a result of the aftermath of 1960s civil unrest around the nation.

Scott-Heron was inspired by those artists who participated in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the early 1960s. He looked to the works of Nina Simone, Richie Havens, Huey P. Newton, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, and Otis Redding in order to devise the best method of reaching Black America with community-changing messages.

Artists like those from the Watts Writers Workshop (WWW), which was an instrumental group of young writers initiated by screenwriter Budd Schulberg in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts Revolt of South Central Los Angeles, had been heavily instrumental in popularizing Scott-Heron’s style of delivery. These writers, including Quincy Troupe, Eric Priestley and the Watts Prophets, used their voices to address the concerns of Black boys and girls in an era which saw the assassination of many revolutionary Black public figures, including Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.

Johnie Scott, who currently teaches Pan African Studies at Cal State University, Northridge, is a founding member and survivor of that very group of voices from Los Angeles. His beginnings as a poet and writer in the WWW allowed him to become an award-winning filmmaker, spawning one of the earliest gang truces in Los Angeles.

Scott-Heron, like Scott, was able to find a need within the community and voice his concern through music.

After receiving a master’s degree in creative writing from John Hopkins University in 1972, Scott-Heron journeyed on a mission which saw him produce songs featuring his smooth lyrical flow atop vicious jazz-influenced tracks.

Scott-Heron’s sardonic piece “Whitey on the Moon,” gave us the guts to challenge the larger White establishment by calling attention to those “unimportant” events which were celebrated by society, while the rights of Black Americans were devastatingly compromised.

His voice also addressed the concerns of the Black community, including the influx of crack cocaine, police brutality, welfare, war and the horrific assassination of our Black leaders. The content of his most famous work, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” is a testament to the power of direct messages to the people in the style and delivery of revolutionaries like Malcolm X.
Scott-Heron’s ability to shoot a straight arrow with his writing was combined with his immense musical background to form the sound of the movement. With the release of his earliest albums and performances in churches and concert halls around America, we were listening.

His style would later evolve into the music of the Hip Hop generation, particularly Rap. Although a plethora of Black musicians helped to set the wheels of Hip Hop into motion, Scott-Heron most closely influenced the delivery of rappers in Jamaica Queens and Brooklyn, who used their voices to decry the struggles of a late-1970s New York.

Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc, all adopted Scott-Heron’s approach to revolutionary poetry and music. Their monumental success as the fathers of Hip Hop has allowed Rap music to take a dominating position atop the music industry.

However, with the current erosion of revolutionary rap, Scott-Heron challenged contemporary poets to study music and learn how to blend words with sounds without simply reciting lyrics over a tight beat.

In the latter part of his life, Scott-Heron rebuked the title Godfather of Hip Hop, opting instead to realign himself with those early revolutionary writer/performers like The Last Poets, The Watts Prophets and members of the Watts Writers Workshop.

Our generation is indebted critically to Gil Scott-Heron, for he introduced us to the power of hard-hitting revolutionary art. Although artists like Jill Scott, Common, Mos Def and Erykah Badu exist in the legacy of Gil Scott-Heron, his lasting message is that our generation must recapture the essence of revolutionary art in order to save our people; in order to save ourselves.

See related story on page 7.

James B. Golden, MPA, is a Los Angeles-based music journalist. He has previously edited the Hip Hop Think Tank academic journal and Kapu-Sens Literar “Sweet Potato Pie Underneath the Sun’s Broiler.” He may be reached at www.JamesBGolden.com.