Rebellion runs through pop music, but no performer has ever fused music and radical politics like Gil Scott-Heron, who died yesterday. Chris Nineham celebrates his life and work.

In a series of early 1970s albums, Gil Scott-Heron, collaborating with composer/arranger Brian Jackson, made militant funk and soul that still remains unmatched. It is work that explodes any idea that art and politics don’t mix, and it has been massively influential.

Scott-Heron has become known as the godfather of rap not just because his spoken word over drumbeats prefigured the genre, but because he used the style to tell of ghetto life and urge resistance. In the process he helped pave the way for some of the best moments of Public Enemy, Dr Dre, De La Soul, Kanye West, KRS-One and many more.

Scott-Heron was unique in modern popular music in that he was a genuine activist-artist. The majority of his output was political. He wrote a lot of protest songs: Pieces of a Man explores the impact on a father of losing his son in Vietnam; the great anti-apartheid anthem Johannesburg helped make racism in South Africa an international issue. But a good deal of his work goes further and tries to piece together a bigger picture of the world. The brilliant Whitey on the Moon is a musical montage exposing the insane priorities of a crazed system. Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul? investigates the damage inflicted by the racist system in the US, while the much later Work for Peace visualises a world wracked by war:

The military and the monetary,
get together whenever they think it’s necessary.
They turn our brothers and sisters into mercenaries,
they are turning the planet into a cemetery.

His aim was to inform and to mobilise, but he was critical of some of the militant poets of the sixties who he believed preached at people: ‘You have to do it in a way that includes people rather than chastises them, berates them or belittles them.’

By his own admission his greatest inspiration was Langston Hughes, the radical mid-century black poet. At his best, on B-Movie or The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, he produced a funked up poetry that demands attention and blows away surface reality to reveal the absurd injustice half concealed beneath it.

Scott-Heron’s politics and poetry was a product of the radical movements of the sixties. He celebrated the movement’s achievements but also knew its limitations:

In 1960 I was a negro,
And then Malcolm X came along.
But some nigger shot Malcolm down
So the bitter truth lives on.

Now I am a black man,
Though I still go second class.
Whereas once I wanted the white man’s love,
Now he can kiss my ass.

Through the 1970s and early 80s, while his writing and performing skills flourished, you can sense growing frustration and a bitterness touching his anger. Winter in America from 1974 was a plea for compassion and humanity released at the height of the Watergate scandal, and it remains a formidably intelligent document of that time. Rivers of My Fathers, an eight-minute jazz-soul journey, evoked Hughes’ pained landmark ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’. Another track, The Bottle, explores the intersection between inner-city poverty, alcoholism, and the culture of incarceration. The Bottle became a block party favorite as well as a chart success.

Significantly, a number of Scott-Heron’s signature tunes centre on the power of the mass media and mass politics to divert attention and distort reality. At the end of the 1960s a revolution seemed on the cards. But by the mid-70s the movement had gone into decline.

In From South Africa to South Carolina, Scott-Heron sung:

Whatever happened to the protest and rage?
Whatever happened to the voices of the sane?
Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn?
Or did they just apply to dyin’ in Vietnam?

Scott-Heron stayed politically engaged. He was one of the very first artists to take up the issue of apartheid in South Africa and he campaigned against nuclear power, appearing at the famous Musicians United for Safe Energy concert at Madison Square Gardens in 1979. But being a political singer was becoming harder and harder. In a typically off-the-wall comment, he compared the experience of being a political artist in late-70s America to being ‘a gorilla driving a car. People came to see it, but they don’t believe you have a licence’. In 1985 he was dropped by his label Arista and stopped recording for years. Drug and alcohol addiction added to his problems.

In 1994 he returned with the brilliant Spirits album. Though by far his most introspective record to date and wracked by guilt, it linked his own problems with wider social developments in a completely compelling way. In Message to the Messengers Scott-Heron tries to inspire contemporary rappers to ‘keep your nerve’ and stop becoming the tool of the authorities by glorifying drugs and violence.

In the last decade, Scott-Heron nearly succumbed to the very addictions that he had so often warned about, and he spent years in prison. Despite this he came back again in 2010 with a minimalist and moving personal record called I’m New Here. It turned out to be a last reminder of his genius and the pain and disorientation that his honesty and idealism caused him in a hostile world.

I did not become someone different,
That I did not want to be.
But I’m new here,
Will you show me around?

It is an index of his political disenchantment and perhaps the limits of his black nationalist politics that Scott-Heron had to be persuaded out of playing in Israel in 2010. But although he may have lost some of his political hope, as he sung on I’m New Here, he struggled to the end to ‘do more than to survive’. His work will long be an inspiration to everyone who wants to make the revolution, not just watch it on TV.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.