In late January, flying high from his South Carolina primary win, Newt Gingrich promised supporters in Florida that by the end of his “second term” in the White House he would establish a permanent American lunar colony, an outpost for a future fifty-first state. Several weeks earlier the Republican presidential candidate had told a different audience that what poor children require, more than material assistance, is tutelage in “the habits of working”; it was widely understood that Gingrich was speaking in code about black and Latino kids. His racebaiting and spaced-out sense of resource allocation called to mind a song released by Gil Scott-Heron in 1970, the year after Apollo 11 had deposited the first humans on Earth’s moon:
A rat done bit my sister Nell, with Whitey on the moon
Her face and arms began to swell, and Whitey’s on the moon
I can’t pay no doctor bills, but Whitey’s on the moon
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still, while Whitey’s on the moon
Scott-Heron, who died last year at 62, included “Whitey on the Moon” on his first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, alongside the original version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a screed against mediated apathy in the African-American community. The album shared a title with his first book of poems, and most of its contents are not sung but declaimed over percussion, a format indebted to the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets.
At the time, Scott-Heron thought of himself as a writer, not a musician, having also published, at the tender age of 20, The Vulture, a Harlem crime novel with multiple narrators. A second novel, The Nigger Factory, based on his experiences at Lincoln University, the nation’s first degree-granting black college, appeared in 1972, though by then his recording career was in full swing, with music having become as vital as words. The more familiar recording of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is on Pieces of a Man, released in 1971 with top-drawer jazz and R&B players supporting the slightly altered text with a funky two-chord ostinato. Scott-Heron continued to record while earning a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins and teaching writing in Washington, DC, and became a full-time musician only after signing a long-term deal with Clive Davis’s newly formed Arista label. He recorded ten albums for Arista between 1975 and 1982, and while up-tempo tracks like “The Bottle,” “Angel Dust” and “Johnannesburg” (an early announcement of antiapartheid consciousness) had some currency on dance floors and black radio, the records were too prickly and ambitious to fit smoothly into the pop marketplace, coupling strong grooves with loose, improvisatory arrangements. Scott-Heron’s singing, though earnest, rarely matched the vocal grace of Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye.
Political commentary, for which Scott-Heron often returned to spoken delivery, remained a strength, from “H2Ogate Blues” to “B Movie,” a thirteen-minute dissertation on Ronald Reagan’s mythic appeal: “Nostalgia, that’s what we want…a time when movies were in black and white, and so was everything else. Just remember that it won’t be too long before the director cuts the scene.” Even when hip-hop claimed him as a godfather, a paternity he only reluctantly acknowledged, his down-to-earth persona and penchant for extended analysis remained at odds with the glossy production and boastful materialism of much black popular music in the 1980s and 1990s. Although Scott-Heron continued to tour, Moving Target, his final Arista release, was his last studio album for more than a decade. A 2001 court appearance on charges of cocaine possession exposed the habitual drug use that associates had reportedly known about for some time. (In a New Yorker profile from 2010, Alec Wilkinson pulled back the curtain even more, noting that the musician would openly smoke crack in his presence.) Later drug arrests led to jail time. On his final recordings with English producer Richard Russell, released in February 2010 as I’m New Here, Scott-Heron’s voice, graver and less pliable than ever, is a spectral presence, floating against atmospheric, sample-based musical backgrounds. Though well received, and undeniably poignant, the album cannot be considered the work of a fully engaged artist.