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Gil Scott-Heron Biography | Poet

Photo of Gil Scott-Heron

Gilbert Scott-Heron lived from 1949 2011 and performed poetry in the United States, but he was mainly known for spoken-word performances in the seventies and eighties. He collaborated with Brian Jackso create a blend of blues and soul,as well as lyrics that dealt with political and social issus that were in the public eye in that day. elivery took the form of melismatic and rapping vocal styles. He referred to himself as a "bluesologist," a term that he defines as being a "scientist concerned with the origin of the blues." The most well-known works were The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Winter in America and Pieces of a Man, both of which came out in the early 1970s, but he stayed active in the performance world until passing away. In fact, in 2010, he put out a new record -- the first since 1994 -- called I'm New Here. A memoir, The Last Holiday, came out posthumously in 2012.

Scott-Heron was born in Chicago to a Jamaican soccer player who was known as the "Black Arrow" and was the first black player with the Scottish soccer club Celtic, and an opera diva who sang professionally. They separated when he was very young, and he went to Jackson, Tennessee, to live with a maternal grandmother. When she passed away, he went east to live with Bobbie. He would impress the head of the English department at The Fieldston School through writing, and he won a full scholarship. Going to that school, though, made him feel a deep gap, ethnically and socioeconomically, with fellow students. After high school, he went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, as it was where Langston Hughes had gone to college. At Lincoln, he formed the band Black & Blues. He eventually left before graduating and lived in Manhattan.

In 1970, he started a recording career with the album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. He used the spoken word format, and his performance was accompanied by percussion, conga and vocals. The LP had 15 tracks, all of which focused on such ideas as mass consumerism, the superficial nature of television, white ignorance of the trials of the inner city and the hypocrisy of some blacks who pretended to be revolutionaries.

The 1971 album Pieces of a Man has more of a song structure than Small Talk. The 1974 album Winter in America has some of the most cohesive material that he ever recorded. Many critics view this album as the most artistic album. He released the live album It's Your World in 1976, and in 1979, he appeared at the No Nukes events at Madison Square Garden, a series organized by Musicians United for Safe Energy to speak out against the use of nuclear energy after the accident at the power plant at Three Mile Island. He would release four more albums in the 1980s until Arista Records dropped the contract in 1985. Even so, he kept touring and performing. TVT Records signed him to a deal in 1993, and he put out Spirits which had the song "Message to the Messengers," a critique of contemporary rap. That was a strong message given the fact that he is considered by many to be the "Godfather of Rap." This song asked rappers to demand change in their music rather than perpetuating existing stereotypes further.

In 2001, he went to prison for cocaine possession. He was released on parole in 2003, but then he went back in for possessing a crack pipe. He had another drug possession conviction in July 2006. When he released I'm New Here in 2010, critics raved about it. As NPR's Will Hermes put it, "Comeback records always worry me...but I was haunted by this record." Many critics wrote about the brilliant nature of the performances.

Scott-Heron passed away in May 2011, at St. Luke's Hospital. He had fallen ill while traveling in Europe, and it was known that he had been HIV-positive for several years and had been in the hospital for pneumonia.

Scott-Heron used poems, songs and other writings to showcase anger at the injustices around him. Sometimes this anger came across as awkward and sad rather than outraged, but many critics found that those things made it more authentic. It is this authenticity that keeps him in the public eye, particularly in poetry circles, today. 

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