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A poet and a protester, Gil Scott-Heron captured his time — and ours

One of the premier voices of the Black Power movement is being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

This summer, billionaire Richard Branson took a plane to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere and Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, followed him into space a few days later. With the world in the throes of a pandemic and the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us growing wider, it was fitting that the phrase “Whitey on the Moon” was trending on social media.

Gil Scott-Heron, who will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Sunday with the Early Influence Award, wrote the poem Whitey on the Moon, which he performed on his breakout album Pieces of a Man, on the night of the moon landing in 1969. The song featured lines such as, “I can’t pay no doctor bill/ (but Whitey’s on the moon)/ Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still/ (while Whitey’s on the moon).”

The poem captured the precise political moment of the time while also speaking directly to inequality plaguing the country in 2021. The continued relevance of Whitey on the Moon underscores the continued relevance of his music, message and social commentary. And his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction is an acknowledgment that one man influenced social justice movements five decades apart while also helping birth one of the most popular music genres in the world — hip-hop.

LISTEN: Common on Gil Scott-Heron’s influence on hip-hop and Black life.

Scott-Heron’s father, Gil Heron, was a Jamaican soccer player who would later become the first Black member of the Scottish Celtic team. His mother, Bobbie Scott, was an opera singer. He grew up admiring Fannie Lou Hamer for her truth-telling and fearlessness and poet Langston Hughes for his literary genius and wit.

“He was a renaissance man,” Scott-Heron once said of Hughes. “He wrote songs; he wrote poetry; he wrote columns; he wrote essays. And as a writer myself, I knew that you couldn’t use just one form and get every idea across.”

Scott-Heron’s love of Hughes led him to the writer’s alma mater, Lincoln University, a historically Black school in Pennsylvania. The musician’s time at Lincoln, in the late-’60s, overlapped with some of the most volatile moments in American history — the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the emergence of the Black Panther Party. During this time, Scott-Heron was writing a novel, The Vulture, and formulating what would be Pieces of a Man.

Backstage portrait of musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron (left) as he clasps hands with rapper Common (right) at SummerStage in Central Park in New York on June 27, 2010.

Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

And he was protesting. 

Carl Cornwell, a legendary jazz musician who met Scott-Heron while also studying at Lincoln, recalls a protest on campus over the lack of emergency medical care. A drummer in Cornwell’s ensemble had an asthma attack and died because there wasn’t a doctor on campus and the nurse was unreachable. “Gil was one of the more outspoken brothers on campus and was pushed to the forefront of that movement,” Cornwell recalled. “We ended up shutting down the school. When we came back from winter break, there was an ambulance in front of the infirmary.”

Pieces of a Man was released in 1971, after a push from producer Bob Thiele to evolve Scott-Heron’s spoken-word efforts into more of a jazz and blues blend with the musician’s friend, pianist Brian Jackson, as his right-hand man.

“We both understood there were enough songs about partying and getting down,” Jackson said. “We just felt that if we could actually write any type of music that we felt was needed, we felt that consciousness-raising, and adopting the tradition of the West African griot, was where we wanted to go.”

Pieces of a Man is full of anguish and hope, a masterpiece in which Scott-Heron establishes himself as one of the premier musical voices of the Black Power movement. It was a role he’d continue to embrace in his subsequent work. “No Knock” from his second album, Free Will, is a scathing indictment of the police and policies that led to the execution of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. “Winter in America” (1974) talked about the destruction of democracy, “Johannesburg” (1975) was about breaking down the injustices of apartheid, and “We Almost Lost Detroit” in 1977 was about nuclear proliferation and who suffers the most.

Scott-Heron maintained his activist leanings even as his popularity grew. He became the first artist signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records. He was the musical guest for the seventh episode of Saturday Night Live, thanks to the insistence of host Richard Pryor, who pushed for Scott-Heron when producers were hesitant. (“He issued an ultimatum: If I don’t get the guest I want, I’m not doing the show,” remembered Jackson.)

But it was 1971’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” that became his most lasting legacy. The song, inspired by the opening lines to The Last Poets’ “When The Revolution Comes,” became a rallying cry spanning decades.

Musical guest Gil Scott-Heron (center) performs on Saturday Night Live Dec. 13, 1975.

NBCU Photo Bank

Scott-Heron along with The Last Poets are often credited with being the first rappers for their spoken-word songs. Scott-Heron, though, bristled at the notion.

“He never set out to start a new genre,” his daughter Gia said. “We came from the oral tradition and folks rapping. He’d say, ‘How am I being credited as the inventor of something that has been in existence for over a millennia?’ ”

“He never wanted to take credit as godfather of rap,” said his son, Rumal Rackley, who is the administrator of Scott-Heron’s estate, a job that includes, among other things, clearing samples and granting music licenses. “I think that was just him being humble. He always talked about things he created as ‘we.’ ”

But rappers themselves are quick to credit Scott-Heron. 

“He was one of the forefathers of rap,” said Common, who was introduced to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” as a kid and was blown away by how it sounded “so rebel.” “His poetic approach was guiding a birth of rap in certain ways and the mentality of what hip-hop would begin to be as a revolutionary art form.”

While Scott-Heron helped introduce the world to hip-hop, hip-hop would later introduce younger generations to Scott-Heron. Like many people my age, I was introduced to his music through rap. Kanye West, who performed a tribute set at the memorial service for Scott-Heron in 2011, sampled Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” on 2005’s Late Registration for the song “My Way Home” with Common.

“That’s one of the songs I loved from Gil Scott anyway,” Common said. “So I was really happy to do that, and inspired to do that.”

The track sounds almost like a duet between Common and Scott-Heron, featuring the latter’s booming, sometimes haunting lines about the tortures of addiction and drug use. And while drugs would later go on to wreak havoc on Scott-Heron’s life, he wrote and performed the song so passionately that it’s become accepted that the “Home” is about his own demons.

“Remember, he was only around 19 when he wrote ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is,’ ” said Jackson. “The song, along with ‘The Bottle,’ is an example of a song where he’s going through a lot of description about addiction that he wasn’t experiencing. It just shows his ability to get into the spirits of the people and report back what he sees. That’s his greatest contribution.”

“A lot of the stuff he wrote didn’t come from personal experience, but it was so prophetic,” said author and journalist Lurma Rackley, Rumal Rackley’s mother. “That allows so much of his work to be timeless.”

It’s that timelessness that has made Scott-Heron’s music so influential, especially in hip-hop. He’s frequently sampled, and not just by West. Scott-Heron’s music and voice have appeared in songs by Mos Def, Common, Black Star, Kendrick Lamar and others.

“He just made pretty dope records,” said producer Ichiban Don, who sampled “Peace Go With You, Brother” for Lamar’s “Poe Mans Dreams (His Vice)” in 2011. “Most people who listen to Gil Scott-Heron are educated in Black culture. The people who are tapped into hip-hop will always celebrate him and his music.”

When Gia Scott-Heron heard her father’s voice performing the intro to “Do You See” on Warren G’s 1994 Regulate… G Funk Era, it made her instantly cool at her middle school. The song, which sampled Scott-Heron’s “Bicentennial Blues” spoken-word performance, also helped her feel more connected to her father, who was struggling with a drug addiction that had him in and out of jail and damaged his health for most of his adult life, making him largely unavailable until they rekindled their relationship months before his death.

But “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” will remain the most enduring influential offering. The message, that revolutionary action takes place in the mind before it moves forward, has persisted despite America’s penchant for neutering, commercializing and sanitizing messages of Black resistance.

“We noticed that Madison Avenue picked up the message,” said Jackson, who noted that, as America was trying to commodify the musical resistance, he and Scott-Heron were being followed by the FBI. “It was painful to watch the message appear on commercials. That in itself is a televised revolution. That’s the antithesis of what we were saying.”

“I’m so glad that so many in Black Lives Matter took up ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ as their anthem,” said Lurma Rackley. “To have his voice out there inspiring this generation of activists is powerful. I hope they study him more deeply and not just go on the surface.”

Which brings us back to Whitey on the Moon.

In August 2020, in the midst of an American reckoning, HBO’s hit Lovecraft Country ended its second episode, titled Whitey’s on the Moon, by playing Scott-Heron’s spoken-word piece. The scene defies time and the laws of nature as one of the main characters reaches back to an ancestor for strength to overcome the shackles of the present.

It’s the perfect analogy for Scott-Heron’s legacy. His music stretched across decades, empowering those he lived with and providing a beacon for those who came after. “Timeless” is an easy word, but maybe it doesn’t do his legacy justice. It’s time-traveling. Continuum-shattering. Ever-present. And here for us when we need it. 

David Dennis, Jr. is a senior writer at The Undefeated and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.