With the passing of Gil Scott-Heron I felt it was important to re-publish this interview with him from issue number one of Nihl, an arts and culture magazine I published in 1982. During its short and spastic lifespan Nihl’s contributors looked out at a post-positive world through the lens of neo-negative thinking. Not merely pessimistic, but in Adorno’s words – ” to establish something positive through the thought-means of the negation.”* Nihl emerged during a tumultuous era. The Vietnam War was still raw in the national imagination. Reagan was the newly-elected president whose saber-rattling seemed to be hastening the possibility of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In America, the “black hats” were in power, and Gil Scott-Heron had just released his new album, Reflections. The single, B-Movie, a critique of Reagan’s political persona, was receiving underground airplay. Rhonda Trotter, one of the talented writers working on the staff of Nihl at the time, went to see Gil’s show on Stanford campus and recorded this timeless interview.
Rhonda Trotter: In “Inner City Blues” the poem “This Evening…”, where did that come from?
Gil Scott-Heron: A brother named Mark Essex, from Kansas – I believe – a navy gunner, sharpshooter, came back from Vietnam. The only thing he knew how to do was kill people. He couldn’t get a job, and his reaction to that was to more or less demonstrate how prolific he had been at what he’d been taught to do. And it was attributed in several instances to the Black Liberation Army. It seemed very appropriate at the time that we did the poem – back in 72-73, during the Nixon administration – it seemed to be a comment on what was happening to our veterans since most veterans were out at that time. A lot of confusion, a lot of questions about what this society was turning our young folks into.
RT: Would you in any way describe yourself as part of a community of musicians who are working in a similar way, and who are these people?
GSH: Well, I know that a lot of artist that I’m familiar with do benefits and community programs of the sort that we do … But you find out when you go out to play that there are a lot of folks everywhere who spend a good deal of time doing things like that if they are concerned about it. It’s just that what I’m describing, a lot of artists don’t get into those sorts of programs because they’re generally so poorly done, from the point of view of having it together, having the advertising together, having the sound and lights and things that go into producing a concert and these people are very rarely familiar with that. And you risk not only not making anything for the organization, but at times not even covering the expenses that you put up to get there. That’s happened to us on several occasions working for different social organizations. You just have to be qualified or be prepared to reach into your own pocket to cover whatever it is that can’t be covered by the organization, and then you feel like you really didn’t make any sort of point that you were trying to make: you didn’t help the organization, you didn’t pay your fellows, you didn’t even get the groceries together. So I feel that a lot of artists are reluctant to get involved in those kinds of things because they know it’s going to be risky just in terms of having the basic requirements.
RT: More than any other artist/musician I think you exemplify the fact of Black folks in terms of how we deal with the situation in our art forms as being revolutionary. Can you briefly speak to that in terms of art-for-art’s-sake – the art and music that keeps us in our current situation, versus revolutionary art, music and poetry. The other thing is related to Amiri Baraka and the recent harassment he’s had in New York.
GSH: I don’t see any independent position that I’m in; it’s rather inter-dependent. It hooks up with a tradition that is thousands of years old, the great tradition; the tradition of the artist, at least literally, dates back to the 1780s in this country with Phyllis Wheatley, and Martin Delaney to W.E.B. du Bois and Paul Robeson. I would say if you are familiar with our history and the history of our art and literature that you see a clear cut pattern of people wanting to contribute, not only artistically, but in some practical purpose, for the benefits of the community. Paul Robeson once said that the artist has the responsibility to either help liberate the community or further oppress it. And I think that when Eldridge Cleaver wrote it down it was interpreted as his, but there’s a history of people saying things of that nature and meaning it. And what I do is in that tradition, in that mode. I don’t suspect that in many instances the artists who are dedicated in that fashion to the progress of that community are as well protected by the community as might be necessary. I think that not only what happened to Baraka recently, but the way the Philadelphia police fell on sister Sonia Sanchez and tore her house up looking for drugs. I think that down in Philadelphia is a pretty good indication of the vulnerable position most people, artists included, are in when they do things that can be interpreted as not necessarily anti-white but pro-Black in this country. Oftentimes, the way it seems to be is that our artists in particular point themselves out as spokesmen for a certain constituency in a community, and thereby place themselves in that vulnerable position.
B-Movie, Gil Scott-Heron
But the truth is that in this country you here you’re more likely to be harassed, hurt, or killed if you’re a minister speaking about progress for Black people than if you are a sure enough revolutionary. They’ve shot and killed more preachers than they have revolutionaries. You see Martin Luther King is dead and Huey Newton is not. And Malcolm X is dead and Bobby Seale is not. And Vernon Jordan was shot. The thing that revolutionaries, or even people who want to claim they’re revolutionaries, often forget is that it doesn’t make no difference what kind of wardrobe you wear, and if you speak up about Black people doing better you just risked your life. And there are folks out there who will take it. I think the only answer to that kind of thing is more artists doing that sort of thing so that it’s not so easy to identify which one or which two you can do something to to slow down a movement, or to slow down some sort of progress. I think that the more people who speak out, and say things and take stands on positions that will better our community, the better off each and every other individual artist or otherwise, will be.
RT: You keep mentioning and referring to the fact that it’s difficult to get information and accurate information about Black people and other Third World people, both history and current events, and yet in your poetry and your music you always seem to be right on time with what turns out to be revealed by the time your music hits the record stands.
GSH: Strange, isn’t it?
RT: Do you have any comments on your sources of information?
GSH: I do research. You know, a lot of folks are so busy trying to get their groceries together that they don’t have time to do research. I have time. Maybe that’s the main difference. In other words you can have a poem like “B-Movie” and sum up thirty conversations that people have had on the subject, but I wrote it down, and other people didn’t. When we were doing the “Angel Dust” thing we got information from the National Institute of Drug Abuse because we knew that if we went out and said something about angel dust people were going to ask questions about it and we wanted to be sure we had all the information to deal with it when those questions came up. So it’s all a question of being as prepared as possible out front, so that if you are going to deal with information it’ll be correct. A lot of people won’t check it out but some people will.
RT: There was some controversy about “Angel Dust” and some stations decided not to play it in that they mistakenly or intentionally said that it was promoting the use of drugs instead of decrying their use. I found that whole controversy very strange. What was your perception of it?
GSH: Well, see, it’s the difference between hearing something and listening to it. We got jumped on a couple times in Buffalo and Miami; they were taking it off the stations saying some preachers had petitioned that it be taken off the station the same week that Reverend Jesse Jackson sent us a proclamation for thanking us for doing it. I think a whole lot of stuff gets by people – I could name half a dozen groups that do songs that are openly supportive of experimentation with drugs, nobody ever said anything to them. I find it not just strange but almost ridiculous that people could take a song like the one I was doing and interpret it is corroding anything. Folks have the feeling that oftentimes if you don’t talk about something it will go away. Angel dust won’t go away. Somefolks who were smoking it were going away. I think that music is for the young folks in general; a whole lot of old hardheads who were going around talking about how it was promoting smoking it, they didn’t smoke it. They didn’t know anybody who did. So far as they were concerned it was out there somewhere. But it was right in their churches, in their community, right on their block, and in many instances tight in their house. And the young folks appreciated us for speaking on it more than they appreciated them for trying to act like it didn’t exist. So I try not to take people who haven’t really thought out what they’re doing too seriously. I try not to let them get in the way of what I feel I need to do.
RT: So you did not interpret it as a move by those in power to discredit you such that “Angel Dust” and future songs you make won’t be played?
GSH: I don‘t think people in power have the potential to do anything like that to me. I feel as though as long as our music is available, folks are going to hear it. We’ve been here twelve years. And a lot of people who have not tried to do the things that we do are no longer in the music business. They’re driving taxis and washing dishes. So we understand what the difference is between what we understand and what the community understands about what we’re doing because they have supported us long enough for me to stay out here, while other people who are doing other things have not. A lot of people have trouble pinning down what it is we do and how. But we don’t have any trouble with that. As long as that’s their problem, it’s their problem.
*Negative Dialectics By Theodor Adorno
Suhrkamp Verlag © 1970 Frankfurt am Main
Original text is copyright © 1997 by Suhrkamp Verlag.