WHEN black revolutionary poet/singer/author Gil Scott-Heron canceled his tour date in Tel Aviv last summer – Beats and Breath discussed why it has made such a big difference to people who have been inspired by his music for decades.
“Somebody tell me what’s the word?
Tell me brother, have you heard
They tell me that our brothers over there
Are defyin’ the Man,
We don’t know for sure because the news we get
Is unreliable, man…
Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’
But I’m glad to see resistance growin’…
They may not get the news but they need to know
we’re on their side.
Now sometimes distance brings
but deep in my heart I’m demanding;
Somebody tell me what’s the word?…
I know that their strugglin’ over there
Ain’t gonna free me,
but we all need to be strugglin’
if we’re gonna be free
Don’t you wanna be free?”
From Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s song Johannesburg off of the 1976 release From South Africa to South Carolina
LOS ANGELES – “Do you wanna be free?” It’s a question for all of us at the end of the day. It extends past the industrialized centers of the West to all the despotic regimes and corrupt hell-holes the world over.
Thirty-five years later it still applies to the ghettos of the United States, and it certainly applies to the Palestinian Territories.
Don’t we all wanna be free?
Gil Scott-Heron’s question was a very specific one in 1975 when he wrote the song “Johannesberg.” The 1976 album “South Carolina to Johannesburg” was released at the height of South African apartheid when Heron’s star was at its brightest point. Then, he was the musical spokesman of the black revolutionary struggle and a leading proponent of the Anti-Apartheid movement. His music also charted consistently in the R&B top 100 in the 1970s, something that would never happen in today’s emasculated radio market.
Knowing his history in the Apartheid struggle, I was surprised to learn in April that Scott-Heron had put Tel Aviv on his tour schedule for his new album I’m New Here – his first studio album in 16 years.
The internet was a battlefield for opinions on the matter shortly after it broke in the world press in mid-April. My own friends – many of whom supported the Palestinian struggle for a state – were up in arms against my own stance on the issue. I believed Gil should cancel his performance date. They believed art should be above the bullshit political games inherent in the region.
The Tel Aviv date also created an instant contingent of disgruntled fans who wrote Gil saying he’d be breaking some unwritten code that Sting, Bono, Snoop Dogg and Carlos Santana were all upholding by declining to play in Israel. Other groups interpreted Gil Scott-Heron’s revolutionary musical past as an obvious sign that he would be supportive of the Palestinian struggle.
One of my friends who was totally a fan of Gil Scott-Heron – an American Jew and self-professed Zionist that had never been to Israel – was angry at my own calls to have Gil cancel his Tel Aviv concert. It tested our friendship. How could it not?
I supported the idea that playing Tel Aviv was a violation of the Palestinian civil society’s call to artistically boycott Israel. But my reaction to Gil’s planned Tel Aviv date was more personal. From 1998 to 1999, LA-based music producer Carlos Nino and I worked with Scott-Heron in Los Angeles, producing and promoting shows with him and Brian Jackson – his musical partner-in-crime.
I can honestly say that it was not all roses dealing with a personal hero. Humanizing someone is difficult, especially when that someone was my personal archetype for the original rap master – the original MC – the progenitor of all things sacred and hip-hop to me.
Personally, I stopped dealing with Gil after he failed to show for a gig I had set up in 1999. I long forgave him that indiscretion and moved on to working with more of my musical heroes from the past – musicians that in many cases I discovered as a result of Gil’s influence.
It was Gil’s excesses that made everyone pause when dealing with him professionally. Still, what he did for people within earshot of his voice and his trusty Fender-Rhodes was nothing short of miraculous.
I remember our first concert with Gil on September 23, 1998 – the night of the fall equinox, John Coltrane’s birthday and the first performance of Gil’s original Midnight Band in more than a decade in LA. It was a soul send that saw almost 2,000 people in a space with a fire code limit of 1,200. There was a three block line to get in. Our second show with Gil was at Martha’s in South Central Los Angeles in 1999. On both occasions Gil was a bonafide artistic genius. And on both occasions his message rang through loud and clear.
And now it’s winter
Winter in America
Yes and all of the healers have been killed
Or sent away, yeah
But the people know, the people know
winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting
‘Cause nobody knows what to save
Save your soul, Lord knows
From Winter in America
A noble piece of paper
With free society
Struggled but it died in vain
And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner
Hoping for some rain
Looks like it’s hoping
Hoping for some rain…
Winter in America from the album The First Minute of a New Day (1975)
Debts from past transgressions? Was Gil’s decision to play Tel Aviv money related. It was another thought.
In the two years I worked with him, there was little I could do about Gil Scott-Heron’s “habits.” It wasn’t my place really. I often thought about how unsettled he was as a man. Perhaps he had tasted too much success at such an early age – having published the critically acclaimed book The Vulture at 21?
Perhaps it was that every album he recorded from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970) to the greatest hits compilation The Best of Gil Scott-Heron (1984) increased the expectations of a whole generation of black Americans and social activists looking for a voice to continue the cultural resistance set in motion in the 1960s?
Perhaps Tel Aviv was a dig at his deeply committed fanbase?
At the end of the day, all of this was conjecture. According to news reports, on April 24, 2010 (on the same day as the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide), Gil announced on stage at his London Royal Festival Hall concert that he was canceling his gig in Tel Aviv.
Scott-Heron reportedly told the audience that he “hated war.” One news source said he made a “lengthy monologue” telling a packed audience “his Israel date would not be going ahead.”
A friend of mine at the concert said that Gil “didn’t sound that convinced by his own statement.” But, my friend an avid Gil Scott-Heron fan added, “I think his brain is probably not as clear as it once was – and you need energy to fight the struggle. We all run out of it eventually.”
Well, I was glad to see Gil at least appealing to his own conscience in this case. There were fans who heckled the him and asked that he cancel the Tel Aviv gig. Security threatened to eject them.
My friend said, “It was a really charged evening – the demo started as soon as he came on the stage and it carried on until Gil’s announcement near the end.”
The music? By most accounts Gil was amazing, but one concert-goer wrote in The Guardian that the bulk of the concert suffered from a palpable tension in the hall. “Then everything changed. I was in the top box at the RFH in London, having an excellent birdseye view, I saw his whole persona change after he made his statement. He suddenly shed the burden, his tired presence became energized. The audience was electrified. It was a great finale.”
For many Scott-Heron fans, the music and the message on that night restored their faith in him.
I say that because when a hero loses credibility with his message – a message he has made his livelihood and his reputation off of for decades – then the audience that he relies on for his bread and butter would likely show up in lesser numbers. That’s the economic reality.
Now, with the release of his new album on the popular UK-based XL Recordings label, his touring schedule is full. And his audience rolls will no doubt benefit from his decision. To hear it told by the people of who opposed his Tel Aviv gig, some 50 organizations have written Gil and his label thanking them for canceling.
I can’t help thinking that there is still more that Gil could do.
If, for example, Gil Scott-Heron played in the Occupied Territories – would it be objectionable to say he was going to play in Israel in order spread the message of Israeli Apartheid?
Would supporters of the Palestinian struggle object? Would Israeli’s and Jews worldwide boycott Gil if he played in Palestinian Territories?
For me, the most exciting thing that is happening is that I’m New Here is giving Gil a reason to be excited. And it’s challenging his own beliefs in a very real way. Testing both his political resolve and his means of income.
Maybe he is a superman after all – although I seriously doubt he thinks so:
“You alone have the wisdom to take this world
and make it what it need to be, want to be
will be, someday you’ll see
The day, the day you understand
That there ain’t no such thing as a superman.”
Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman from the album The First Minute of a New Day (1975)