top of page

“Godfather of Rap” story: from prioritising truth to African emancipation, to drug addiction

Even though Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949, it was his maternal grandmother, Miss Lily, in Tennessee who raised him and imbibed in him his ‘weakness’ which reflected his life’s work for which he was hailed as well as castigated.

Scott-Heron’s father was a Jamaican footballer who became the first black man to play for Glasgow Celtic FC in 1951 nicknamed ‘The Black Arrow’. Given love’s transient nature, his parents divorced, and so Miss Lily raised him aged only 18 months.

Scott-Heron was a true artist. He became a poet, jazz singer-songwriter, author and rap music pioneer in the 1970s and 80s, becoming famous worldwide. It was Miss Lily, a religious lady, who introduced him to the gospel music and the art of playing the piano. However, by eight, Gil had taken a liking to the blues, as he listened to on a Memphis radio station and mimicked what he heard on his piano.

Gil Scott-Heron, Image credit Mischa Richter

His grandma also exposed him to Black consciousness via “the literary artistry and social activism of Langston Hughes.”

When Miss Lily passed away in 1962 when he was only 12, his mother came for him, relocating to a Bronx apartment.

Scott-Heron was a very active and proud black youth who excelled in writing courses and earned an academic scholarship to the elite Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale where he was one of five African Americans in a class of 100.

His next academic station was Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Soon, his artistic soul made him blossom as a musician and activist and formed the Black and Blues band with fellow Lincoln student Brian Jackson.

Scott-Heron came to the attention of the world stage with his provocative novel The Vulture (1970) and The Nigger Factory (1971). By 1972, he had earned a master’s degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University.

By 1975, he had been signed to Arista Records, the first artist on the mega label. Scott-Heron together with Stevie Wonder campaigned intensively, touring the country to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday in 1983, sharing the same beliefs and spirit of inclusion and diversity.

Hip Hop artists have always loved and respected him. It is documented that The Roots, Mos Def, Queen Latifah, Common, Talib Kweli, Tribe Called Quest, Blackalicious, and Kanye West performed with Scott-Heron and/or remade some of his amazing and meaningful songs.

The Revolution will not be Televised (Flying Dutchman, 1974) by Gil Scott-Heron. Image credit BLACK PAST

As BlackPast writes: “The electric, edgy, angry sounds he created with his fusion of soul, jazz, blues, and poetry—often in collaboration with musician Brian Jackson—made him a forerunner to a later generation of rap artists, particularly such socially conscious rappers as Tupac Shakur, Jay Z and Dr Dre.”

Scott-Heron, often known as the “Godfather of Rap”, spoke truth to power and held Africa and African emancipation as a priority, describing his music as “Bluesology”, “Midnight Music” or as “Third World Music.”

The protest singer and poet, who described himself as the “minister of information,” set about entertaining and educating, through song, worried about African American pop culture and its chief agent, television.

“You will not be able to stay home, brother,” Scott-Heron warns in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, his popular 1970 poem. “You will not be able to the plugin, turn on and cop-out,” he adds.

Also, Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 1976 called him “one of the most interesting new leaders of the black cause in America today.”

He sang about issues in America, Africa and Asia as well as elsewhere. He protested the U.S. war in Vietnam and drew attention to happenings in Zimbabwe, El Salvador, Namibia and Poland, trying to shed a light on Black communities problematics, often unheard and forgotten.

His 1976 hit song Johannesburg “woke Americans up to what was happening in South Africa and what people in the US could do to help defeat apartheid.”

Along the way, he was targeted by the FBI and CIA which viewed Scott-Heron as a dangerous revolutionary and when corporate bodies shied away from him, Scott-Heron made do with performing on college campuses and in tiny venues, selling a few thousand records. His long-time record company eventually dropped him because of his fervent spirit and desire to make a difference in the world in the name of the black culture.

Image credit MelodicaMente

He was on top of the world, a promising music legend. But the dream came to an end at the top of his career, when Scott-Heron became addicted to crack cocaine. Between 2001 and 2007, he was arrested several times on drug possession charges and jailed.

He had three children with three different women, trying to find a lover in others instead of searching for love within his person, choosing not to follow any rehab path that has been proposed to him. Scott-Heron died when he was 62, on May 27, 2011, in a New York hospital, after struggling with addiction.

In 2012, he posthumously received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and two years later was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

Scott-Heron's work has influenced writers, academics and musicians, from indie rockers to rappers. His work during the 1970s influenced and helped engender subsequent African American music genres, such as hip hop and neo-soul. He has been described by music writers as "the godfather of rap" and "the black Bob Dylan".

Image Credit Michael Levin/BDS Movement

He was able to craft jazz-influenced soul and funk that brought new depth and political consciousness to '70s music alongside Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. In classic albums such as 'Winter in America' and 'From South Africa to South Carolina,' Scott-Heron took the news of the day and transformed it into social commentary, wicked satire, and proto-rap anthems. He updated his dispatches from the front lines of the inner city on tour, improvising lyrics with an improvisational daring that matched the jazz-soul swirl of the music".

Unfortunately, drugs made him fall in a dark and locked tunnel, from which he never recovered. His story though aims to be an example for everyone who has a dream and a desire to make his voice heard by everyone in the world. Don’t you ever stop what you are born to do or want to achieve, in particular when life makes you crumble. He made history, and so are we trying to go through a change that seems difficult, but never impossible to obtain in this systematic society that only listens to those “who count”. We are here, and we are the change, are you with us?


bottom of page