Baram dissects his critically acclaimed biography of the complex musical icon, Gil Scott-Heron.
Writer Marcus Baram
Tavis: Gil Scott-Heron is a seminal figure in music best known for his 1970 polemic, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. Scott-Heron encapsulated a turbulent era with singles such as “The Bottle” and “Johannesburg”.
Now his complex life is the subject of a critically acclaimed new text written by journalist Marcus Baram. It’s titled “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man”. Before we start our conversation, first a look at a documentary that shows just how Scott-Heron’s music defines an era.
Tavis: Let me start with the obvious for me. You are the managing editor of the International Business Times and yet you’re writing a book about Gil Scott-Heron. Why?
Marcus Baram: Good question. People ask that a lot. Because for me, this was a labor of love. I felt like it was something I had to do. I mean, my background is journalism, kind of hard news, business, politics, but for over 25 years, I’ve wanted to do a book about Gil.
Baram: Because he’s such an important seminal figure, you know. I mean, he was bringing politics and social awareness to music, into an audience of millions, and then he kind of disappeared in the 80s and people forgot about him.
And I wanted to pay tribute to his legacy and that’s something I’d dreamed about since the early 90s when I first saw him in concert. I always thought in the back of my mind I’m going to do a book about Gil one day.
Tavis: To those watching right how who don’t know and are asking the question who was Gil Scott-Heron, how would you answer that?
Baram: Yeah, another good question. What I would say is, you could use the shorthand, the Black Bob Dylan. You could use the Godfather of Rap. But, I mean, what I would say is this figure who merged politics and social awareness and commentary with music, with a beat, with a funky beat.
I mean, there were songs about apartheid and racial injustice and all kinds of big political issues that he was able to bring to the masses through music, and very few artists could do that. He was a poet through music to just spread the message and commentary and knowledge to millions of people. That’s what I would say.
Tavis: The shorthand definitely explains it when you say he’s the Black Bob Dylan, and many people have said that, although Gil personally hated that description. We’ll talk about that in a second. But when you say the Black Bob Dylan, how would you define or describe his writing, his lyric, his poetry?
Baram: I mean, Gil’s poetry, very influenced by Langston. He was a hero of his. But he was about pointed commentary like, you know, bringing a poignant feel to issues in the community, issues that resonated with him, his own emotional growth, his own emotional ups and downs, talking about what was really happening in the streets.
That was a big issue for him like he talks about how in high school, he was asked to like interpret a poem and they talked about it. It was all in a very theoretical level and he wanted to do street poetry. He wanted to do poetry that talked about big issues that somebody who was not educated could understand. They wouldn’t need a PhD to understand where he’s coming from.
Tavis: Every artist struggles, I guess, with this at some point in their career, certainly most artists do. What was the struggle that Gil encountered wanting to do what he wanted to do in the way he wanted to do it versus somebody else wanting to commercialize his message? I know he had that fight.
Baram: Yeah, yeah, he did. He did a lot. I mean, he was signed by Arista and Clive Davis. He’s the first artist signed to Arista in mid-70s. But even from the get-go, you know, he was always kind of fighting back against the studio because Gil was just stubborn. He wanted to do things his way.
He didn’t want to – like there was pressure, I think, from the music industry to bring in R&B producers to make his sound more pop. And then when rap came along, to like bring in hip-hop producers, and he pushed back against that. He wanted to do his own thing. He really wanted to make his own music.
Tavis: Why did Clive sign him? What did Clive Davis think he could do or what did he see or hear when he heard – Gil was never – he never held his tongue. What was Clive expecting to do with Gil Scott-Heron?
Baram: I mean, Clive is a genius and I think he saw Gil and thought, wow, this is like – I mean, in a way, the Black Bob Dylan, he saw that. He talked about that, how he wanted to promote Gil as the Black Bob Dylan.
But he also saw Gil as here’s a voice that hasn’t been – we haven’t seen this before. This is something new. We have somebody talking about, you know, big political issues and doing it with a beat that you can dance to in the clubs and with an R&B sound.
You know, Clive saw potential. He thought Gil could really be a huge artist and he, you know, would go see Gil in concert in New York and he was blown away. He’d bring Stevie Wonder and Stevie was a big fan and he thought that he had to sign this amazing artist.
Tavis: Tell me about Gil’s early life. What happens in his life that pushes him in the direction or opens up a door for him to be this iconic artist?
Baram: Well, a lot of things. I mean, he grew up in Tennessee and kind of abandoned by his parents. His father was basically a pioneer ’cause he was the first Black soccer player, professional soccer. But he was abandoned by his parents and raised in Tennessee.
And his grandmother always gave him the sense of integrity. She used to tell him, you know, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. And that stuck with Gil throughout his life, that sense of integrity. And then when he came to New York with his mother later and he went to school, he got into music and poetry and writing.
Then when he went to Lincoln University, Langston Hughes’s alma mater, he met this amazing group of musicians, Brian Jackson, Eddie Knowles, David Parnes, Victor Brown, people who they all shared the same vision, similar politics.
They all wanted to bring their message to the people and he thought, wow, I can do this. Poetry isn’t going to be enough to reach enough people, but if we do music to it and get a record deal, then I can reach millions of people.
Tavis: I mentioned earlier the obvious, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. If there’s one thing that Gil is best known for, I suspect that’s it. Was he okay with that? I mean, every one of us has to be comfortable at some point, I guess, with how we are defined amongst all the stuff that we’ve done. Was he comfortable with that being the thing that everybody knew him for?
Baram: He was because it was such a politically potent song. I mean, he did always talk about how people misunderstood the song. People thought it was like literally the revolution will not be on TV. When it happens and you’re home, it’s not going to be on your television.
And what he meant was that you have to be active. When the revolution comes, you can’t just be sitting as a passive observer on your couch at home and watch it. You have to be an active participant and, to make it happen, you have to be in the streets organizing, protesting, and that’s what he meant.
So he was always a little frustrated, I think, that people would use it and use it for headlines and use it in the wrong way. But he was very proud that, of all the songs that he wrote, that’s one that people, you know, stick with.
Tavis: It’s appropriate right about now.
Baram: It is. I’ll tell you, I’ve seen ever since – I mean, the Ferguson verdict, the Eric Garner verdict, I’ve seen people tweet that thousands of times on protest signs. It was in Cairo in Tahrir Square. It was in the Ukraine. So for decades now, that motto has appeared on protest signs and it’s become like part of – it’s been a very inspirational mantra for people.
Tavis: He had some challenges in his life.
Baram: Yes, he did. Yes, he did. I mean, it’s one thing that people always ask is what happened to Gil? Like he was such a shining star and so charismatic. And more than that, was so self-aware. I mean, he wrote “The Bottle” about alcoholism. He wrote “Home is Where the Hatred Is” about heroin addiction. He wrote “Angel Dust”. He was so conscious of drug addiction and then how could he himself get hooked?
I mean, there’s a long answer, but I think – I mean the short answer to that is that he had a real emotional like gap inside of him because he was abandoned by his parents and he had difficulty expressing his emotions to people close to him.
He could do it in songs and lyrics, but he couldn’t really bring himself to talk about the pressures he faced either to be put on a pedestal talking about revolution and the political pressure to be this leader of the protest movement, and music industry pressure to like produce hits. So I think he sought an escape and, like a lot of musicians, you know, there’s drugs available everywhere.
And because of his own physical constitution, you know, some people can do a few lines and smoke a joint and they’re fine and they can move on, and he just couldn’t. And some people say Richard Pryor introduced him to freebasing and then he got hooked on crack and basically he was a functioning crackhead for about the last 20 or 25 years of his life.
Tavis: When did you get to know him?
Baram: I met him in the early 90s. So I became a big fan in college and then, when I moved to New York and I was a school teacher, I had to go see him live and he was amazing. And I met him a few times backstage and, like I said, when I first saw him, I was like I need to do a book about him because there’s dozens of books about Bob Dylan, about jazz giants, and there’s nothing about Gil. His story needs to be told.
So we met a few times. I did a profile of him for New York magazine in 2008 and then I always wanted to do his story. So when he passed, I just had to do it.
Tavis: Situate him for me in the pantheon of the great artists.
Baram: I mean, I think he is this pivotal figure because he comes between when R&B became more politicized. You had Marvin Gaye doing “What’s Goin’ On”, you had Curtis Mayfield, and then you had hip-hop in the 80s and the message and Public Enemy, and Gil bridges those two eras.
And he’s a pivotal figure in bringing the idea you could do poetry and talk about big political issues and talk about societal problems and injustice and do it with a beat and with real music. It didn’t have to be dry, you know, just with drum beats or it didn’t have to be just recitation, monologues. People were dancing to “Johannesburg” at the clubs.
Tavis: He was an amazing artist, gone too soon. But as you heard Marcus say earlier in this conversation, his lyrics, his words, his poetry still resonant even for a generation today. The new book by Marcus Baram is called “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man”. Marcus, congrats on the text. Good to have you on this program.
Baram: Thank you. Great to be here.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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