The Revolution Will Be Funky
Interview with Gil Scott Heron
Gil Scott Heron has been rolling out his celebrated blend of funk-jazz and conscious lyric for over thirty years. Hailed by many modern hip-hop MC's as the godfather of rap he has always been a champion of social justice; from the rolling funk of his anti-apartheid anthem 'Johannesburg' to the rallying rare groove of the 'Revolution will not be televised'. During a recent visit to the UK Mike Powers caught up the man to discover that street politics are still informing his grooves.
June 2000 / Squall Download 6, Sept-Oct 2000, pp 6-8.
Squall: How's it been going this week?
GSH: It's not just been full houses, we've had good houses. The spirits are good. Last couple nights we was on fire. We're gonna do Glastonbury. Yeah, I got some mud boots that come way up to here, you know swamp boots. Glastonbury's gotta have rain. It's like Wimbledon.
Squall: In your poem/song Alien, you talk about the plight of illegal immigrants. What motivated you to write that tune?
GSH: I lived in California for a while, and all the guys downstairs were from Mexico. None of them had a green card. Every time they heard a police siren they thought it was coming for them. They came over to my house and I'd hear all about their lives. I heard stories of how they come over, you know, some of them came across in the back of trucks, or by sneaking through places where there was a hole in the fence, or snipped through the barbed wire. Some would come into New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, California, but they'd all have a hell of a struggle, The essence of their journey was that they had to. They had to come over to make money for their families... their families were starving... they were bombed... they were migrant workers... they were people who had a chance and this was their opportunity to make some money. And they'd go back to western union and they'd send all the money back to the folks back home. They'd send all their money home and just have enough for two six-packs and all they had in the fridge and that's what they'd survive on for the next week. They'd come round to my house, eat, have a bottle of beer, knock it down and go straight back to work. Some of them were doing two or three jobs, except they weren't getting a lot of money because they weren't legal so they couldn't sign up for the minimum. They just had to take what was being given, but it was still more money than they could make back home. I heard about this story and said: 'Hey, that's the same thing I'm doing, I got a dream to hold on to, I'm trying to take care of my folks, we working on this together'. I spoke a little Spanish, they spoke a little English and so we communicated and got along very well and we became friends; allies in the struggle.
Squall: What similarities do see between New York and London? You've been coming here for a few years now.
GSH: London is almost like New York. People burn out, lose it and, you know, I give people money on the streets. There but for the grace of god go I. I been down. Ain't no sense going into it now, but there it is.
Squall: How's the Mumia Abu Jamal campaign going?
GSH: We played a benefit for him back in September. We broadcast it on the Internet. We believe that he deserves a new trial, we don't think the old trial was conducted properly. We don't believe he did it and we're looking for some answers there. As long as he is alive, we'll continue to try and get him out, get a retrial and get the truth known. He's already been in there for longer than he deserves, almost 20 years. That's a long time to be anywhere you're not supposed to be. But he continues to be strong.
Squall: Have you ever been to jail?
GSH: I did three days recently, before my mom put up bail to get me out. They found two grammes (of cocaine) in the back of this cop car where I'd been arrested. They didn't find it on me. They searched me, they didn't find anything on me, cause I didn't have anything on me at the time. But they said later on that they'd found it in the back seat later on.
Squall: (I mimicked the cops throwing it in the back seat, he misreads that I meant he was throwing it, then he said, "No, I was handcuffed at the time".
Squall:I explain that I meant the cops and he nods and says "I think that was it. I think they hated to give it up too."
GSH: I did three days for that but it's still under grand jury investigation so I can't talk about that. I been in different jails and I like the ones over here better. I did a night over here one night. I got busted at the airport. I was asleep and they asked if I had any drugs and I just said 'Yeah, here you are'.
Squall: Tell me about your poem/song King Henry IV (about Aids/HIV)
GSH: H is for the Henry, IV is for the fourth. That's street talk. It's street talk, it's street language. We're trying to educate people and sometimes the only way to educate 'em is to use the same kinda language they use. That's hip hop. That's off the streets.
Squall: Do you think the message you delivered to the hip hop community in Message to the Messenger has been heard?
GSH: By some yeah. About the time they started that 'Godfather of Rap' shit, a whole lotta youngsters started saying they prided their work after mine, and I just wanted to be sure that they understood that they knew where I was coming from. Cos I don't write no poems my mother and my daughter can't listen to. So, right, that's the standard. If you're saying things that are righteous, neither your mother nor daughter need be ashamed to listen to em. We're not for calling ladies a bunch of bitches, or for calling them a bunch of hos. We'll call them ladies and treat them that way. And if you got one that ain't that way, then don't call her it at all.
Squall: What's your view on Puff Daddy and the latest strands of consumerist hip hop?
GSH:I think flash and dash in the community will get you washed. I think that'll get you pulled into one of them alleys. Somebody will unload you with that shit. We don't flash and dash around our folks. We got it like that sometimes, and if they need it we'll lay it on them, to help them out. But that's not the object of what I'm doing. I coulda been there and done that. We may be flashing, but we ain't wearing it. We ain't trying to spend it. We're trying to share it. There are billions and billions of people trying to make a living. It's a blessing when you get it like that. If you get a break and hit the numbers, then stand on out there and help everyone else out.
Squall: Some people see success as material...
GSH: Yeah, and they show their insecurity that way. I feel successful no matter where I am, and my music has gone way beyond the boundaries that I originally saw.
Squall: What did you think about the WTO demos?
GSH: They stopped it. They bought it to a complete halt. They assigned themselves to keep the money from joining the money and that's what they did. The WTO is like a mega-corporation that holds on to everything, and they're trying to break that down and I'm in favour of that. Those people don't need to be hurt like that. We gotta get some respect for the workers, co' we the ones doing all the work.
Squall: In one of your songs you say "Back in the days of the non-violence I was the only non-violent one." Have your ideas on that changed as you've grown older? And what about the recent spate of killings by cops in New York?
GSH: We gonna square that up. We're gonna be the last ones to get hurt this time. We got something for their ass. They shot somebody in the Bronx, downtown, and they done some of that shit in Brooklyn, but they ain't come to Harlem with it yet. We'd burn that sumbitch down if he come here with that shit.
Squall: You've written songs about the environment, so why did you do that voiceover for the new wheel from Goodyear?
GSH: They came to me and asked me to advertise it and said it was a green thing, you know, and it does use less fuel. You gotta have respect for mother nature.
Squall: What wouldn't you advertise?
GSH: I wouldn't advertise anything for the military or the monetary. Anything for the NRA (National Rifle Association).
Squall: Why do you think you are you still popular?
GSH: I think the literary things, the language. People can hear what's going, with the melody and they can get the message too.