G

il Scott-Heron has a serious reputation. As an author, singer, songwriter, teacher, poet and polemicist, he is part of a line of creative, challenging voices who chronicled the 20th-century black American experience, running from his beloved Langston Hughes back in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, through Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Martin Luther King, to the birth of radical rap music in the form of Public Enemy and, more recently, Kanye West. In an incisive, prophetic and productive run from 1970 to 1984, Heron took aim at apartheid, Ronald Regan, ghetto life, the destruction of the environment and Richard Nixon. His messages were clear and direct, whoever they might hurt. But those messages could also be brilliantly funny.
“I learnt early on that your audience take the songs in the way they want to rather than the way you might want them too,” he says. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – that was satire. People would try and argue that it was this militant message, but just how militant can you really be when you’re saying, ‘The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner’? My songs were always about the tone of voice rather than the words. A good comic will deliver a line deadpan – they let the audience laugh.”

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