Artist * Poet * Activist * Musician * Author
Gil Scott-Heron was called home Friday, May 27, 2011. An iconic creative spirit who left an indelible mark on Black music and indeed the entire world, you’ll read obits about his public accomplishments and contributions. He is indeed a revolutionary. He is the Godfather of Spoken Word. But this piece is about what this amazing Master Teacher taught me during the three years I worked on his behalf.
Gil’s music used to pump at full volume in my home. My parents and he went to Lincoln University, and his albums remained in heavy rotation. To me, Gil Scott-Heron was larger than life: big smile, big beard, booming voice that could have been on the corner or at my holiday dinner table breaking down injustice with his unmistakable cadence. He spoke the truth without fear on his records. And the instrumentation was incredible: insistent, fierce, soulful. Bass lines that made neck hairs stand up. Flutes and keys that insisted you move along with them. Gil was the man who brought it to The Man. So when an internship came up at a place that represented him, I made it my mission to get the gig. Knowing who he was and what he sang at my age made me a shoo-in, especially when most teens were all about hip-hop.
I was 19 when we met. In real life, his beard and voice were as big as they seemed on his records, but he was also tall, lean, witty and charismatic. The internship was at DeLeon Artists, the booking and management agency that also represented Willie Colon, Etta James and many other luminaries of soul and jazz. Eventually, his agent (and my mentor) Bruce Solar would leave De Leon and start Absolute Artists, taking me with him to be the office and contracts manager. Because Bruce kept Gil on the road booking him hundreds of dates across the globe, Gil went with him to Bruce’s new company. “I want to be on the road 320 days a year,” he told us. Bruce made sure of it.
Upon Gil’s death, I realize that much of what I practice and impart to others in the entertainment industry comes out of working with and on behalf of Gil:
Be concerned with honesty over popularity.
Gil Scott-Heron said what he wanted to say, 100% of the time. How you took what he had to say was on you. Now, this is risky enough in life. In art, it’s everything. His indictment of the system and observations of how they affected people on the margins made him popular. Authenticity was a hallmark of Gil’s.
Make great music and you can tour forever.
Gil went for years at a time without releasing new music, and yet he was always in demand as a performer or lecturer. Artists with a substantive point of view that they can express in their music or in a discussion will always have income.
Keep your publishing, even if it’s a portion. The checks are worth it.
Gil would have his entertainment life handled through the agency. His publishing checks came to the office. They were especially big after the first quarter of each year, because Gil’s music was a Black History Month staple (and still is). Had he surrendered all his publishing, he would not have had that supplementing his tour income.
Addiction is evil.
I admired Gil to no end as an artist, and never imagined I would meet him, much less have the distinct honor of working with him. I also never imagined I’d see him consumed by the haze he used as a forcefield around him, as armor against all he knew but could not control. I don’t know how he died, but I do know that between working so much and abusing his body, he looked more like 82 than 62. I can only imagine the pain it caused those close to him. Bruce and I were always waiting for the worst news. Ironically, it never came; he lived longer than even Gil said he would. Gil used to tell Bruce and I that if he made it to 50 he’d kill himself; he’d say it with complete seriousness as he chuckled. When he didn’t, we were surprised and relieved because Gil usually meant what he said. Substance abuse is a hard demon to confront, much less vanquish. So many greats are gone from losing that battle. I submit that Gil would have been with us longer had he not engaged that war. It reminds me that compassion for those we love is paramount, especially when we don’t love what they’re doing to themselves.
Thank you, Gil, for all you gave us–and all you taught me. You will forever be loved, in all your complexity.
May the peace he sang and worked for be his at last.