This semester, I participated in a gallery show organized by Dr. Marin Sullivan entitled “Objects and Objecthood: Material Encounters Across Campus,” featuring submissions from Keene State faculty that represented a dimension of our pedagogical aims and research interests. For my part, I displayed some 12″ record covers–all by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, whose work I have taught this semester in my course on Hip Hop Lit.
Tracing the inheritance of the Black Arts Movement in contemporary multiethnic American poetry necessitates a consideration of literary institutions and publication history. Especially with respect to music, the aesthetic impact of albums as a widely available, popular artistic commodity is often underestimated. My thinking about material culture and the Black Arts Movement–aspects of that literary movement like collective spaces, publishing houses, and collaborations with musicians and visual artists–is deeply indebted to Dr. Howard Rambsy’s book The Black Arts Enterprise, which is a key text in the current reassessment of the Black Arts era.
The following is the wall text I contributed to the exhibit:
- Gil Scott-Heron. Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970). Flying Dutchman.
- —. The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron: A Collection of Poetry and Music (1978). Arista.
- Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson. Winter in America (1974). Strata-East.
- —. Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day (1975). Arista.
- —. From South Africa to South Carolina (1975). Arista.
“words are important for the mind / the / notes are for the soul.”
—Gil Scott-Heron, from “plastic pattern people”
Now more than forty-five years and fifteen studio albums since he originally recorded the poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil Scott-Heron’s influence has registered more with fans of hip-hop than with literary critics. However, understanding Scott-Heron within a tradition of black writers affords a fuller appreciation of his distinctive blend of humor, music, and politics, too often dismissed as street-poetry or proto-rap.
Gil Scott-Heron’s fluency in residual oral forms—the root of African American literature—exemplifies the ethos of the Black Arts Movement, which was part of the Black Power struggle in the mid-1960s. As poet and critic Larry Neal famously urged: “the poet must become a performer, the way James Brown is a performer—loud, gaudy and racy. … He must learn to embellish the context in which the work is executed … [f]or the context of the work is as important as the work itself.”
While Scott-Heron’s recorded performances prove his mastery of vernacular traditions, his albums also reveal a fiercely experimental literary undercurrent. I use Scott-Heron’s books (a memoir, two novels, and three volumes of poetry), film (Black Wax), and recordings to underscore how multimedia forms broaden the literary audience by blurring the lines between art and entertainment—between poetry and popular music.
Considered as artifacts, these records epitomize the reciprocity of words, images, and sound. On the cover of his earliest album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970), Scott-Heron prominently wears the badge “A New Black Poet.” The classic, independently produced Winter in America (1974) features original artwork by Eugene Coles and Peggy Harris. The First Minute of a New Day (1975) and From South Africa to South Carolina (1975) use illustrations of a gorilla (guerrilla?) to build thematic and symbolic continuity.
Significantly, his album, The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron: A Collection of Poetry and Music (1978), features a twenty-four-page book of writings and photographs taken by John Ford. In the introductory note, Scott-Heron reflects on his uneasy relationship with generic boundaries:
I am frequently asked which is my preference—music or poetry and prose writing. Different ideas call for different vehicles and the artist who limits himself or herself to one medium has lost a valuable opportunity for further growth. I generally use as my response and reference point to these questions the examples of Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, men who used a range of artistic media—song, poetry, acting and oration—to convey in a variety of ways, contemporary social ideas and political circumstance. These ideas may have been common to most people on an individual level, but when placed in a creative context by the artist they dramatize, politicize and promote a group level of conscience and awareness.
Expanding traditional ideas about what poetry is and where it exists enriches the study of language and literature. Scott-Heron’s invocation of Hughes and Robeson, for instance, demonstrates that placing words and music on a single continuum has profound political implications. The work of Black Arts writers like Scott-Heron demands that our analyses take more than syntax and symbolism into consideration. We must also attend to the visual and aural dimensions of prosody and poetics, the political context of performance. From the page to the stage, Scott-Heron’s virtuoso style exemplify Larry Neal’s concept of the black artist as “a kind of priest, a black magician, working juju with the word on the world.”