Shut’em Down: Reflections on Ferguson and Gil Scott-Heron by Michael A. Gonzales #BlackProtestMusic

Shut’em Down: Reflections on Ferguson and Gil Scott-Heron
by Michael A. Gonzales

After the Michael Brown decision in Ferguson, Missouri last week, amid the expected disgust about the so-called fairness of a legal system that allowed murderous police officer Darren Wilson to remain free and employed while pocketing cash for network news interviews, I was taken back to the days of yesteryear when I’d seen so many scenes of racism played out on my childhood television screen. Memories of fire hoses and German shepherds used against peaceful marchers in the sixties, white Bostonians spitting on Black school children in the seventies, crazy cops killing us in New York City in the eighties and, on and on. Decades later, visions of a bloody teenaged Michael Brown sprawled in the streets have been connected to that collage of disturbing images in my mind that visually defines racism in my lifetime.

Continually haunted, I try to go about my days as a Black man in America, avoiding direct eye-contact with police least they suspect that I too am a cigar grabbing criminal who deserves death over dignity. Although I haven’t been a teenager in many years, it doesn’t deter me from thinking that I too could be slain because of the color of my skin, because of the kink of my hair, because of the bop in my walk, because of the jungle music in my head.

While new school artists from J. Cole to The Game have written protest anthems for the millennial generation, I’m an old head who came of age when James Brown was shrieking about being Black-n-proud, Marvin Gaye beautifully moaned, “What’s Going On?” and Curtis Mayfield broke down our “Hard Times.” Offering strength through lyrics and solace through rhythm, these musical men kept Black America focused on the revolutionary road that supposedly led to our inevitable freedom from stereotypes and senseless death.

Although I grooved to those tunes, as a boy at the time they were just regular songs to me, finger-poppin’ tunes whose true meanings my young mind didn’t grasp. It wasn’t until I heard Gil Scott-Heron’s revolutionary blues “Johannesburg” on Saturday Night Live in 1975 that I first got turned out by the possibilities politics in Black pop. Airing on December 13th, it was a gig I later learned he’d gotten through his friend Richard Pryor, who guest-hosted the show that night.

Dressed in pajamas and sitting on the living-room floor of our Harlem apartment, my cool moms let me stay-up late on Saturday nights to watch the show; she and her friends Bubba and Herman sat on the couch. On the boob tube, Pryor (whose masterful comedy album That Nigger’s Crazy I completely memorized the year before) held up the cover of Gil’s upcoming album From South Africa to South Carolina, introduced the Afro wearing lanky cat standing next to him.


My mom’s friends were excited, but I’d had never heard of the guy; I was more shaking my groove thang to the Ohio Player’s blazing “Fire” or getting down to Earth, Wind & Fire’s brilliant “Shining Star.” According to the recently released Scott-Heron biography Pieces of a Man by Marcus Baram, NBC’s producers were peeved and hoped had that Pryor “could bring in a more popular group.” Still, with SNL producer Lorne Michaels giving Pryor permission to book whomever he wanted, the show also gave Gil, as Baram documents, “…free rein to play any songs he wanted.”

After swaggering across the stage to his keyboard the then 26-year-old, Gil’s youthful face was untarnished and filled with the promise. Inevitably for me, it was a musical moment that changed my life. Sitting behind his keyboards sporting a beard, Heron wore a dashiki and blue jeans. Heron sang about a foreign land called “Johannesburg,” something else I’d never heard of as his intriguing mix of revolutionary poetics, African percussion and bluesy backdrop was hypnotic.

Being twelve years old at the time, I had never heard of apartheid and had no idea what this Black Panther looking dude was even talking about, but whatever it was, I knew the subject was serious.

Gil Scott-Heron & Richard Pryor from Culture Cuts on Vimeo.

For the next few minutes, I was enthralled by the sound and spectacle, while being acutely aware that I was also learning something; for the next three decades, Gil Scott-Heron became one of my favorite teachers. Although not a “real” singer on par with Marvin Gaye, there was something enticing about Gil’s gravelly voice and heavy weather lyricism. Listening to his classic singles, the self-proclaimed “bluesologist” schooled a generation in the art of poetic protest.

As he did on his first hit single “The Bottle,” Gil’s blistering track about the bitter effects of alcoholism, Heron taught lessons without being preachy. As his musical “student,” Public Enemy leader Chuck D. once put it on “Don’t Believe the Hype,” Gil knew how to, “Rock the hard jams, but treat it like a seminar.” In other words, the brother could drop science and still make you boogie.
Teaming with music man Brian Jackson, he introduced his listeners to various musical styles while also taking them on a brutal tour through the dark side of America as rapped about the corpse of “Jose Campos Torres” or the cultural signposts throughout “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” one of his most powerful and influential songs.

Heron and Jackson recorded one album on the indie label Strata East (Winter in America) until primo record man Clive Davis, who had worked with Miles Davis, Sly Stone and Janis Joplin at Columbia Records, signed them to his newly formed Arista Records in 1975.

Unlike other political minded singers who wrote material based on experience and/or emotion, when the Lincoln University educated Gil, who had also written two novels (The Vulture and The Nigger Factory) and a book of poems, riffed on subjects including ghetto strife, Watergate, mine workers and addiction; one got a sense that his knowledge was both book learned and street smart, while also maintaining a sense of humor that was wicked and wise. From South Africa to South Carolina was Gil’s second album for Arista, where he released nine albums total.

Although Gil Scott-Heron was the first artist signed to Arista, ten years later, soon after Davis released Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut album, he was kicked to the curb. Gil continued to tour and occasionally made records, but it was also during this period that he sprawled into a long addiction that lead to health issues, numerous arrests and countless problems. When his friend Stevie Wonder volunteered to pay for Heron’s rehab, the singer refused.

With the introduction of crack in the mid-1980s, drugs were cheap and plentiful while simultaneously our communities were devastated. My old uptown Harlem hood, where Gil also lived, was soon transformed into a drug bazaar where coke and crack was sold openly.

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