The First Minute of a New Day
Music and Politics with Gil Scott Heron
Biting political monologist, social critic, and vocalist Gil Scott-Heron is a man you should be hearing from increasingly in the months ahead. He's been around for a long time, but recently Clirc Davis' new Arista record label decided to put the big push behind Gil, having decided that the public is ripe for a poignant synthesis of music and politics. If record sales are any indication, Clive was correct, as Gil's new album is rising rapidly up the charts. Perhaps such a phenomenon will teach the music industry that the public isn't always as stupid as they would suppose.
Gil began working on his unique vocal musical approach in the late sixties when he recorded f ar Bob Thiele's excellent but unnoticed Flying Dutchman label, which has spawned the likes of Leon Thomas and Gato Barbieri in the past. From there he moved on to produce an album entitled "Winter in America "for the artist-controlled label known as Strata-East. "Winter" sold 100,000 copies, unheard of for an independent small label with severely limited distribution, Due to Strata's inability to keep up with demand. Gil went to Arista, where he apparently is able to maintain significant control over content, packaging, and other aspects of recording which attracts artists to labels like StrataEast.
The entertaining Savoy Club in Detroit hosted Gil's first Detroit appearance several weeks ago, where he appeared with the complete Midnight Band, featuring acoustic and electric piano, drums, sax, and a multitude of percussionists playing authentic African instruments s. It was an invigorating performance. Several hours before, Gil spoke at a press conference attended by media representatives from throughout the area. The remarks that follow were excerpted from that talk.
Q: Could you explain the concept behind the phrase "Winter in America," the title of one cut on your most recent record?
Gil: Winter in America is a period we feel was brought about by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; plus the head-whipping experience demonstrators went through in Chicago that seemed to close the door on the progressive change which has been the political foundation of the first 8 years of the sixties. The forces that in the '60s were drawing people together were assassinated and repressed. A climate was brought in which was receptive to law and order and phone-bugging - the kind of thing that Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were all about. Ever since then it's been Winter in America. And Gerald Ford, he's part and parcel of the same trip. But you go through winter to get to a new springtime. We believe in karma which means that as you sow, so shall you reap what goes around, comes around. When you accost and attack people, you have to understand that you are eventually gonna be attacked in the same fashion. So we relate to winter as the final season before people get their heads together, get their weapons and shit together to deal with the future.
Q: The last line of the winter piece is "we shall. see you in the spring." What will be the conditions of the spring?
Gil: In a song we do called "Western Sunrise," we take a line from the Koran, which says that on judgment day, the sun is going to rise up in the west and set in the east. Metaphoric indications are that a light will rise from the western hemisphere, from western society, which will indicate the path people should take towards peace. But there are a lot of things we need to deal with before we get to that. Cause there's a lot of people who don't want peace, and they happen to be the people in control right now. They say we don't want to have people worrying about eating, or about making cars, or gasoline, or building houses. But they still send a hundred billion dollars to the Pentagon for "defense," in a year when everything is supposed to be cut back cause we have such a powerful recession and terrible inflation. There always is a sacrifice on the part of the have-nots for the people who have. Things will have to shift before there's peace here or anywhere else, as the United States perpetuates unrest and discomfort all over the world.
Q: What's the primary drive behind your music?
Gil: One thing that we try and deal with specifically is the fact that although there were a lot of battles in the late '60s, those were not necessarily the whole war. When we do a piece like "Pardon Our Analysis" on the new album, we're trying to point out the inconsistencies in America's way of dealing with people. We need to focus attention on these situations, so there won't be a Joanne Little going to jail for life for defending herself, while a man like Richard X. in Buffalo faces 1,365 years consecutively, one year at a time. Here's a man who was an inmate in the yard when they did the shooting at Attica. He faces 1,365 years, while Rockefeller, who gave the order to kill prisoners and guards, is now the Vice-President. Or how 7 out of every 10 black men behind bars never reached the ninth grade, not having had $50 when they got busted. The poor and the ignorant go to jail, while the rich and affluent go to places like San Clemente. As long as there are inconsistencies like these, there will be me, or people like me, saying something about it. And we try and bring up some of the background of these situations, so people can see that they are not isolated incidents, just a microcosm of things that are happening all the time.
Now you can try and ignore these problems if you want to, Republicans, Democrats - you can say that shit just doesn't exist, I'm not going to vote, I'm not going to respond to none of it. . But nevertheless, every time they pass a law, have a debate, every time they relate to giving this money here and this money there, we as individuals are affected. And the people who have the least, the underprivileged, the poor, are the people that the hammer fall Is down on directly. We feel that people who have not been treated fairly are those most susceptible to change. Right now, that's in the black communities of America. Most of the people in the white communities still haven't realized what a tremendous game has been run on them. Until that revelation comes to them, we'll relate to the people who are the most susceptible to change. Plus that's where we live. If the man next door gets his head whipped, then that could be me. So somebody has to say something before I get my head whipped or before he does. Now black people are, for the most part, peaceful people. But oftentimes you have to respond to people in the manner in which you are approached. If we're approached with hostility, we'll have to respond with hostility. But for the most part, we should be about gathering our own resources together and try to get ourselves out of the hole that other people have put us in.
Q: Do you think that audiences are more receptive now to your kind of message than previously?
Gil: I believe so. I think that Nixon's getting busted has given people like ourselves a lot more credibility than we would have gotten otherwise. Because if you called Nixon out in 1970, people would say, "you radical, you subversive, you're always trying to make trouble." This s a fine American. But then they got his ass.
Q: Why did you choose to use so many percussionists in your band?
Gil: Well, in África they have two words that are very important. One is called "umjumbe," it means messenger. Another is "greot," meaning man who carries a message. In African society, many of the messengers and much of the communication was based on use of the drum, so consequently, we decided to emphasize that in order to communicate.
Q: Are you still writing poetry and novels?
Gil: I've done some, but haven't organized it for publication. You see, we are in a position dealing with a lot of people who cannot read. America is a place where education is plentiful, but miseducation seems to be almost as plentiful. A lot of people in high school nowadays don't have reading levels sufficient to really get into interpretive poetry. So we deal in the oral tradition, the African tradition - they had music before they had a written language. There were messengers who did poems with drums, horns and dancers - a whole combination of art forms. You see, in poetry a lot of times people who fancy themselves intellectuals, academically oriented people, make things more complicated, instead of making them more simple. A poet's function should not be to make things more complicated - anybody can do that. A poet's function should be to take and distill thoughts, making them as simple as possible. When I write, it's to make sure that everybody can understand it.
Q: Do you see the possibility for you and other progressive black artists to revive some of the musical energy that existed in the past?
Gil: I think for the most part progressive music is now at a new height in terms of acceptance. College and some other radio stations are playing more progressive music, so people can learn to understand things that they would otherwise not be brought into regular contact with. A lot of stations have The torces that in the sixties were drawing people together were assassinated and repressed. Ever since then t's been Winter in America. But you go through winter to get a new springtime. We believe in karma, which means what goes around, comes around." I been playing tunes that have previously been regarded as non-commercial, whereas until recently radio's been just like tv, aimed at a 7th-grade mentality. Radio was even 4th or 5th grade. But some people in the media are re-evaluating the American intellect with a new understanding - that people are ready for anything. After all, the people programming on the radio are part of the audience and similar to them most of the time. The response to previously "non-commercial" music has been tremendous - look at Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Stanley Clark.
Q: Now that you are becoming a popular voice in the mass audience, how will you deal with national attention and commercialization?
Gil: It's not in front of me in those terms. The bigger question would be whether the focus of our idea and philosophy has or will change. All I can say is make sure you buy our next album. We've been doing this now together for a long time, which is an indication of how thoroughly we're conviced that there's some things that need to be said. See before, when we were on Strata East, we couldn't reach a wide audience. So now I feel that we're in a position businesswise which we've wanted to be in for some time. Our records are promoted, advertised and widely available. We're now stable businesswise, which you need to be, whereas before we were unstable businesswise.
Q: What about playing benefits?
Gil: For the last five or six years we have been very receptive to playing for people who need money. A good example would be a concert we played for sister Joanne Little last month in Washington, raising $2500 for her defense. We're receptive; it's a question of working with organizations that have some record of stability and consistency for helping the community, and not those that just spring up on the spur of the moment.
Q: How have you been received by the "critics"?
Gil: Well, because of our percussion emphasis, a lot of white critics have come away saying it sounded like voodoo, or a bunch of niggers beating on Budweiser cans in the park on Sunday. Now I know the people l'm hiring have 35 combined years of experience, and play a variety of drum-related instruments with discernible tones and qualities. The critics have to be educated so they can properly review us. In America people depend on critics to teil them what's happening. We don't run into too many who know enough about what we do, but they refuse to admit that to themselves. They review us as if they were coming from a point of knowledge, when all the time they are speaking from a point of ignorance.
Q: On your latest record, there is a drawing of a gorilla who appears to be in junglearmy uniform and is smoking a joint. What does that image represent?
Gil: There's a song on our album called "Guerilla." The Midnight Band mascot ís a gorilla named Hugo. Some people advised us to take a Rin Tin Tin, or a Morris, or a tweety-bird, or goldfish in bowls. But we prefer Hugo because gorillas guerillas don't take no shit off nobody. You don't hear about nobody grabbing on a gorilla. We advise people to stand up for themselves. Whether it be guerilla or gorilla, take your pick, but be sure you're a guerilla."