It’s been half a decade since Gil Scott-Heron’s final release but his music and messages continue to resound. His home-grown gravely Jackson Tennessee voice and lyrical wordplay led him to be dubbed as “The Godfather of Rap” and he’s been sampled by artists from Jamie XX to Common to Rihanna and Drake.
As part of a celebration of musical pioneers, visual artists and technologists, Convergence, organised “The Gil Scott-Heron Project: Pieces of a Man,” a tribute to the life and legacy of the legendary American soul and jazz poet, culminating in a live show at the Roundhouse. A few days before the event, I spoke to musical director Dave Okumu who selected the artists chosen to reinterpret the music and spirit of Gil Scott-Heron. Dave is an extremely talented yet humble and humorous guy who has worked with a host of UK talent including Jessie Ware, Theo Parrish, and Amy Winehouse. He mentions a new project with Grace Jones who he tells me he’s been a fan of since he was eight when his sisters used to dress up like her and blast records before going out.
His love affair with music began when his brother returned from holiday with an acoustic guitar and strummed the chords to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car.’ Having moved from Austria at a young age Dave recalls first hearing Gil’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ played on the dance floors of the 90s club scene in London. To Dave, what makes Gil Scott-Heron so special, he tells me, is “his bravery as an expression of faith – his transparent honesty heard in the tone of his voice saturated with blues.” Gil fearlessly connected and voiced universal truths that too often lay unspoken or unheard, as Dave comments, it was his “humanity, his profound empathy and courage to articulate current burning issues exposing his own personal experience.”
As a guitarist, producer, writer, and band member of The Invisible, Dave draws on a surplus of sounds sown into the rich heritage of soul, jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music, as well as finding inspiration in what’s happening today. The live show paid tribute to Gil with powerful performances from the chilling voice of Andreya Trianna singing ‘Winter in America’ to Kwabs’s soulful interpretation of ‘Home is Where the Hatred Is.’ The collaboration of unique renditions by Jamie Woon, Anna Calvi, Joan As Police Woman, Nadine Shah, Gwilym Gold, Loyle Carner, Floating Points, and special guests Kate Tempest and Reginald D Hunter made this a superb one of a kind event which Gil would have been proud to have seen. With so many talented artists taking the stage to express their versions of Gil’s songs it’s easy to see the extensive and profound impact his music continues to have.
Dave delves into why Gil’s words carry such meaning, “he talks about addiction, impoverishment, and institutional racism with emotional intelligence and wit in a way which doesn’t alienate people and penetrates mass culture to stand up and say this is important.” Gil’s undeniable impression on modern music and cultural change may slip by unnoticed by many but his words and influence continue to help pave the way for artists to sincerely vocalise their experience with eloquence and true expression.
A good man, a musician, a writer, and revolutionary willing to express his raw sincerity, empathy, and humour towards understanding key issues in his time like race, gender, politics, economics and war which continue resonate even more loudly today and why Gil is much more than the sum of his pieces.
Photo courtesy of Antonio Pagano