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Marcus Baram is the author of the Gil Scott-Heron biography Pieces of a Man (November 2014, St. Martin's Press)
Systemic racism. Police brutality. Endemic poverty. Corrupt politicians. Environmental degradation. The hollowness of society and consumer culture.
Today’s issues mirror the problems faced by Americans a half-century ago, when Gil Scott-Heron took pen to paper and fingers to piano and wrote poignant lyrics for songs about the crises facing the country. Ever since he passed away 10 years ago, I often think, “What would Gil say?” knowing that he would express his feelings with passion, trenchant commentary, and acerbic wit.
Throughout that time, whether it was the ascendancy of Donald Trump, the killing of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and George Floyd, the dominance of social media, growing income inequality, or melting icebergs, I’ve always asked myself the same question: “What would Gil say?” I yearn for his commentary and analysis not just because he was so brilliant and intense, but also because it’s so missed right now. We need his voice more than ever. Listening to songs like “Winter in America” or “Peace Go With You, Brother,” you realize how unique they are, how much they stand out from most of the music that you hear on Spotify or on the radio.
Gil’s work is so vital, partly because there are so few successors to pick up the mantle and carry on his legacy. There seem to be so few contemporary musicians — with the exception of Kendrick Lamar and Solange Knowles and Michael Franti and a few others — who are taking on society’s problems with their words and music, writing lyrics full of beauty and outrage and spirit and rebellion.
The last time I saw Gil, in the green room at his favorite New York haunt, Sounds of Brazil, where he performed dozens of times over the decades, he seemed hopeful. As always in recent years, he seemed fragile and gangly, yet beatific and buoyant, like he was being lifted up by the spirits he often referred to in his lyrics. “We’ll be here. I know I’ll be here. One day at a time. I feel blessed.”