Remembering Gil Scott-Heron
Last August The New Yorker ran a profile of musician Gil Scott-Heron with the gloomy headline, “New York is Killing Me.” Although the subhead attempted to balance the negativity by noting “The unlikely survival of Gil Scott-Heron,” it was a pretty grim description, accompanied by a poignant life story and interviews. Less than nine months later Scott-Heron, widely considered one of the inventors of rap – he didn’t like the word Godfather – survives no more. Something did kill him, but probably not New York.
On May 27, at age 62, he passed away after a groundbreaking career, a recent trip to Europe, and a long struggle with crack cocaine. The cause of death wasn’t initially mentioned.
Scott-Heron called himself a bluesologist, a modest claim for someone whose musical style and lyrics had such a profound impact. The title of The New Yorker piece was taken from a song on his last album, We’re Still Here. He wrote:
Bunch of doctors came around,
They don’t know,
That New York is killing me
I need to go home
And take it slow down in Jackson, Tennessee.
He had spent some time in Jackson. His father was Gilbert Heron, a soccer player from Jamaica who moved to Chicago after World War II and met Bobbie Scott, his mother. But mom and dad broke up when he was only two and he went to live in Jackson with his grandmother. She was the one who nurtured his musical talent. Grandma died when he was 12 and Scott-Heron moved to the Bronx with his mom. There he eventually became one of five blacks in a class at the exclusive Ethical Culture Fieldston School, and moved on to Lincoln University, where his musical career took off with collaborator Brian Jackson.
His last recording begins and ends with part of a poem he wrote decades ago, “Coming from a Broken Home,” specifically the lines:
Womenfolk raised me and I was full grown
Before I knew I came from a broken home
Scott-Heron emerged in the late 60s, a charismatic avatar of what became rap and author of unforgettable phrases like “the revolution will not be televised.” He was witty, tough and political, a writer who sang with a distinctive growling voice. His music meshed percussion, poetry and politics in unique ways, opening the road toward a new kind of music. The lyrics took on race and apartheid but also nuclear power and consumer culture. On his latest album Kanye West closes the last song with a long excerpt from Scott-Heron’s “Who Will Survive in America.”
Between 1970 and 1982 Scott-Heron made 13 albums. After that, however, there were only three. In his last ten year he was convicted twice of cocaine possession.
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was the title of a satirical spoken-word piece he wrote in 1968, at the age of 19. It went out on a small label, but the impact was immense. The lyrics are still smart and subversive more than 40 years later, though the cultural references have become dated. It made Gil Scott-Heron instantly famous.
In the early 1980s I saw him perform live in Burlington, one of the best live performances I’ve ever experienced and the first rock concert my son Jesse attended. But his final decades were tough and troubled. He even chose crack over a serious relationship with artist Monique de Latour. Still, he leaves behind a wonderful legacy in songs like Johannesburg, Home Is Where the Hatred Is and We Almost Lost Detroit, and lyrics like these:
The revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be right back after a message
About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a germ on your Bedroom,
a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that cause bad breath.
The revolution WILL put you in the driver's seat.
The revolution will not be televised,
WILL not be televised, WILL NOT BE TELEVISED.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.
Ousted President Comes Home
While most people in the US celebrated Memorial Day, Hondurans were engaged in a very different historical moment: the return of President Manuel Zelaya, 23 months after being forced into exile at gunpoint. It was the first coup in Central America in about 25 years. Unfortunately he is no longer president. But Zelaya’s peaceful return is a limited success for coup opponents. The post coup government, under President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, has become increasingly repressive, virtually a political pariah in the region.
Earlier this week a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, signed by 87 members of Congress, called for suspension of aid to the Honduran military and police. Clinton and her friend Lanny Davis, who lobbies for the coup regime, have pushed to legitimize the current government – despite a state department cable titled "Open and Shut: The Case of the Honduran Coup" that admits Zelaya’s removal was illegal. PS. The cable was released by Wikileaks.
Amy Goodman was the only US journalist on Zelaya's flight home. On the way she asked him how he felt. "Full of hope and optimism," he replied. "Political action is possible instead of armaments. No to violence. No to military coups. Coups never more."
When Zelaya landed in Honduras he was greeted by tens of thousands of people cheering and waving the black-and-red flag of the movement born after the coup, the National Front of Popular Resistance. In Honduras it’s known simply as "the resistance."
Shortly after his return, Honduran teachers who have been on a hunger strike for a month publicly asked him to intercede on their behalf for the reinstatement of some 300 suspended teachers. Their health is deteriorating. Five who met with Zelaya -- Yanina Parada, Luis Sosa, Valentin Canales, Wilmer Moreno and Juan Carlos Caliz – have lost weight and shown symptoms of anemia. Some have kidneys problems, according to doctors monitoring them. The strikers want the reinstatement of colleagues suspended for joining protests in March and April against privatization of education and other demands, such as the payment of back wages owed to over 6,000 educators.
Since the coup, violence has been widespread. Anyone daring to speak out risks intimidation, arrest and possibly murder. At least a dozen journalists have been killed there since the coup, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Scores of campesinos have also been murdered. Goodman reported last week that high school students protesting teacher layoffs and the privatization were violently attacked by police. The UN is meanwhile concerned about an apparent new development: targeting of lawyers by organized crime groups.
The current government agreed to Zelaya's return to gain readmission into the Organization of American States. The coup leaders apparently don’t like their isolation in Latin America. Not so among US leaders. Even though President Obama eventually acknowledged that Zelaya's ouster was "a coup," the US subsequently dropped the term.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said recently that he doesn’t support Honduras's return to the OAS at this time. Those responsible for the coup haven’t been punished, he argues, something he considers a requirement if the country is to return to normal. Nevertheless, Honduras was readmitted on Wednesday, just in time for the OAS General Assembly scheduled for this Sunday.
Though democratically-elected, Zelaya ended up agreeing to his exile in the Dominican Republic. His replacement was a conservative landowner with a business degree from the University of Miami who started out by pledging to be tough on crime and push for reintroduction of the death penalty. Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina called his election illegitimate. Secretary of State Clinton backed him.
Prior to removal Zelaya was gaining popular support for policies like a 60 percent increase in the minimum wage, a plan to take over the US Palmerola air base and use it as the civilian airport, distribution of land to peasant farmers, and joining Alba, the regional cooperative bloc developed to reduce US economic domination. On the day he was deposed, Zelaya was holding a nonbinding straw poll on whether to hold a national constituent assembly to evaluate possible changes to the constitution. He thinks that’s why he was deposed.
Was the US involved? It’s possible. US policy clearly shifted after Zelaya decided to improve relations with Venezuela. The hope was to secure petro-subsidies and aid. Whatever the real story, the coup sent a message to others countries that found Venezuelan-led economic programs attractive. For Hondurans, the important thing right now is a return of democracy.
Vermont’s Road to Single-Payer
Last week Vermont officially embarked on the road to providing health care for all its residents through a single payer system called Green Mountain Care. Key elements include containing costs by setting reimbursement rates for health care providers and streamlining administration into a single, state-managed system. However, the state will need a waiver from the federal government to implement its plan by 2014 and unanswered questions remain.
Organized opposition has been muted in the last few months, mainly led by insurance agents. But an influx of national money and media is expected now that the law has been signed. “There are definitely people who want to see this fail,” notes House Speaker Shap Smith. “We cannot let that happen.”
Major questions, including how the program will be funded, have yet to be worked out.
Cyber-attacks will soon be considered acts of war, according to the New York Times. In the future, a US president will be able to respond with economic sanctions, cyber-retaliation or a military strike if key US computer systems are attacked. Not only does this look like another step toward an era of Info Wars but one more example of executive power expanding at the expense of democracy and sovereignty.
Question: Is a Progressive-Libertarian Alliance Possible?
SNIP: “Short of something like a Sanders-Paul slate or a new, well-funded Progressive-Libertarian Party, the best hope may be a multi-issue alliance that brings people together across the usual ideological barriers around a limited number of galvanizing issues. Just for example, how about this: bring the troops home, deep cuts in the military, roll back repressive legislation, full financial transparency, and end corporate welfare. The process could begin by agreeing on something like that.
“You can certainly say that such a list is incomplete or doesn’t go far enough. Fair enough. But it does go in the right direction, potentially bridging some of the divisions that keep the vast majority fighting among themselves while realigning conventional Left-Right politics. In the long run, a Progressive-Libertarian alliance probably couldn’t last. But before it faded – if people overcame traditional divisions, if the debate really changed and new thinking took hold – wouldn’t the effort be worth it?”
Adapted from Rebel News Round Up, broadcast live on The Howie Rose Show at 11 a.m. Fridays on WOMM (105.9-FM/LP – The Radiator) in Burlington.