At the beginning of the booklet that accompanies The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron, his 1978 collection of poetry and music, Gil Scott-Heron wrote:
I am frequently asked which is my preference – music or poetry and prose writing. Different ideas call for different vehicles and the artist who limits himself or herself to one medium has lost a valuable opportunity for further growth. I generally use as my response and reference point to these questions the examples of Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, men who used a range of artistic media-song, poetry acting and oration – to convey in a variety of ways, contemporary social ideas and political circumstance. These ideas may have been common to most people on an individual level, but when placed in a creative context by the artist they dramatize, politicize, and promote a group level of conscience and awareness.
When I sat down to coordinate this introduction for an album and book I was once again, as a recording artist and writer, straddling an artistic fence. I have tried to pursue the combined experience of music, word rhythms, and social ideas in all my work.
The purpose of this two-day conference is firstly to cover the entire span of Gil Scott-Heron’s intermedial talent and to bring out the tight network of connections between his poetry, his two novels, his autobiography and, of course, his songs (words and music).
It is then to try and plot his intellectual and artistic itinerary over a three-decade career and situate him as accurately as possible on the spectrum of African-American radicalism. The spoken word enabled him to tap into never (as yet) explored nuances, that embraced politics and ethics. Close attention will be paid to orality, rhetoric, satire and the ways in which Scott-Heron transformed the poetic form of the song and continued the tradition of change and innovation in Black cultural expression.
A further aim is to examine his place as an American citizen and citizen of the world, a modern-day Jeremiah, an early whistleblower about concerns that were to become major ones.
Last but not least, we will trace out his artistic and literary influences beyond the ones he himself indicated, and decide what, as a spoken-word artist, his present influence may be in the specific case of British artist Kate Tempest, with whose work Gil Scott-Heron’s bears more than a superficial resemblance.