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YouTube revolutionaries

Youtube revolutionaries

At a recent night honouring the late jazz-poet Gil Scott-Heron, an eclectic group of musicians gave his verses a modern twist

At a recent night honouring the late jazz-poet Gil Scott-Heron, an eclectic group of musicians gave his verses a modern twist

Hazel Sheffield | March 15th 2016

The comedian Reginald D. Hunter appeared halfway down the bill at a recent event held in honour of Gil Scott-Heron, who died nearly five years ago. “I grew up with that generation that was young with him,” he told an audience at the Roundhouse in London. “My sister told me about this song.” Behind him, Dave Okumu, a producer and musician in the British electro-pop act The Invisible, started up the band with the bopping bass line of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. Clutching several sheaves of white paper in trembling hands, Hunter delivered Scott-Heron’s furious lines about Nixon, civil rights and consumerism over the song’s much-sampled drum pattern. 

They were performing in “Pieces of a Man: the Gil-Scott Heron Project” at the Convergence festival, which brings music, visual arts and technology together in venues around London. In light of the controversy surrounding this year’s Brit Awards, which was criticised for failing to nominate any black British artists, the tribute felt well-timed. But it’s been in the works for a while. Glenn Max, the curator of Convergence, approached Okumu about organising the event two years ago. 

“[Max] was interested in giving Gil’s music a British spin and accessing a new, younger audience,” Okumu explained a few days before the big night. Okumu said Max chose him in part for his work with artists like Kwabs, Andreya Triana, Anna Calvi and Jamie Woon – artists who fit the bill and appeared on it, too. 

On the night, Hunter said his sister had told him that when Scott-Heron wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, young African-Americans involved in the Black Panther movement, including Scott-Heron, thought the revolution would come at any moment. Scott-Heron was 23 when the single was released in 1971 and had already recorded three albums and published two novels and a book of poems. The song made him famous.

Scott-Heron’s revolution never came. When the 1970s ended, he succumbed to drug addiction, suffered from ill health and spent time in prison. “It was just grief,” Hunter said.

Okumu said Scott-Heron was part of an oral tradition that went back to the griots in West Africa, and their successors the jazz poet Langston Hughes and the leaders of the Harlem renaissance, a tradition intent on “giving voice to the issues of the time and using your wit and eloquence to speak about what is going on.” Without Scott-Heron, he said, it’s hard to imagine the existence of Public Enemy, Ice Cube, D’Angelo, or rap as we know it. 

Scott-Heron’s legacy, especially in his later years, was forged in the UK under the guidance of Richard Russell, the founder of the British independent label XL Records. In 2010, Russell, who has described Scott-Heron as “a father figure”, recorded and released “I’m New Here”, Scott-Heron’s first album in 16 years and also his last. It was celebrated for its mix of spoken interludes, covers and original compositions that saw the great poet of socio-political discourse turn his gaze inwards, to the broken home of his childhood and drug addictions of later years.

Scott-Heron died barely a year after its release. Not long before he did, he told the New Yorker: “This is Richard’s CD. My only knowledge when I got to the studio was how he seemed to have wanted this for a long time… All the dreams you show up in are not your own.”

At Okumu's night, the Roundhouse resounded with dreams of Scott-Heron. The American singer Joan As Policewoman covered the Scott-Heron song “Running” under a spotlight, playing the keyboard with one hand. Kate Tempest performed her piece “Europe is Lost”, which rails against oil giants, social media, and melting ice caps (its title echoes Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit”, about a nuclear meltdown at a power plant in Michigan in 1966). And Solomon O.B., a Bristolian spoken-word artist, presented a poem written for the occasion that ended: “The revolution will not be televised, but it might be YouTubed.”

Convergence Festival March 10th-20th, convergence-london.com.

 

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