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A Prayer for Gil Scott-Heron to be Free

I recently heard of the passing of Gil Scott-Heron. His passing is truly a loss to African Americans and free-thinking people around the world.

My introduction to Gil Scott-Heron was through my oldest brother, who is eight years older than I am. Growing up in the '70's, I always felt my brother had "radical" tastes -- he had the kinds of records -- and I mean "records," not tapes or CDs -- that my Pentecostal father would have probably broken had he known what was being sung or said on them. My brother didn't have the time or patience for fluffy, insignificant music like disco or arena rock. His tastes included Santana, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Tower of Power, Parliament/Funkadelic, Richard Pryor's comedy albums ("Bicentennial Nigger," anyone?), and, of course, Gil Scott-Heron. It seemed that, in order to make the cut to be included in his musical collection, your music had to have a message or a vibe that resonated with a young black man well aware of all the unfairness America had in store for black men like him. Gil Scott-Heron's did.

As a teenager in the '70's and a young adult in the '80's, I mostly dismissed my brother's tastes as radical or depressing. And Gil Scott-Heron's message about revolutions not being televised, prisons in Angola, Louisiana, and angel dust just were not to the liking of my naive and obnoxiously optimistic persona. Weren't there happier things to sing about?

No, there weren't. Gil Scott-Heron spoke the experiences of injustice and struggle experienced by many African Americans. I was removed from those experiences because I happened to come from a married, two-parent, working-class nuclear family. But that didn't mean I should have been allowed to forget that those experiences were real. The genius of Gil Scott-Heron was that he made us hear those experiences in a way that made us want to listen, even if we had to grow a little older to appreciate those messages.

I had the pleasure of seeing Gil Scott-Heron perform in my college dormitory. Yes, my dormitory, Ujamaa, at Stanford, in the early '80's. It would be generous of me to say that he looked hard, as if he were still struggling with addiction or had recently overcome such a struggle. It was then that I became a fan. He had no entourage, no trappings of stardom. He just played, sang and spoke. I don't remember if he played this song then or if I heard it later, but this one Gil Scott-Heron song would become one of my favorites, so much so that I have always wanted it played at my funeral: A Prayer for Everybody. The lyrics begin:

This is a prayer for everybody
In the world
For I am you and you are me
And we need each other . . . .

As I got older and more appreciative and understanding of the message Gil Scott-Heron was providing in his music, a message I wasn't prepared to hear as a teenager, it struck me that the fact that a man who sang so much of oppression and injustice and struggle could sing such a simple and beautiful song recognizing the humanity and interconnectedness of all of us was a testament to his genius -- his ability to deliver a message that we all needed to hear in a manner that would make us want to listen.

To me, losing Gil Scott-Heron is like losing Richard Pryor or Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye. He was part of that generation of messengers who made us listen and, for some of us, made us grow up and take notice of what was happening in the world.

Godspeed, Gil Scott-Heron. I pray that you are free. Thanks to you and my oldest brother for freeing my mind.


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