Saturday, May 28, 2011

GIL SCOTT-HERON AND THE NARRATIVE FUNCTIONS OF HIP-HOP



Poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron, most famous for his 1970 song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," died yesterday at the age of 62. Here is an obit from the New York Times, an In Memoriam from The Root, and the first segment of an hour-long documentary about him.

As the NYT story puts it, "Mr. Scott-Heron often bristled at the suggestion that his work had prefigured rap. 'I don't know if I can take the blame for it,' he said in an interview last year with the music Web site The Daily Swarm." Nevertheless, many hip-hop artists cited him as an influence. Among them was Public Enemy's Chuck D, who tweeted, "RIP GSH...and we do what we do and how we do because of you." It was Chuck D who also famously called rap "the CNN of the ghetto." It is this political function of rap that leads me to write. 

Below, I've posted selections from a longer article on "Hip-Hop as Oral Tradition," by Weyland Southon, of KPFA's recently-ended "Hard Knock Radio" show, published in a one-off magazine I put out in 1995. 

"HipHop is the fist of urban America and the pulse of its youth. It is the absolute cutting edge of social and political commentary. However, the origins of HipHop are not in the sampled loops of George Clinton, Sly Stone or James Brown. The roots of HipHop are beyond even The Last Poets, Nikki Giovanni and Gil Scott-Heron. Before Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and Gwen Brooks or even before the written word, there was the griot, or African storyteller.... 

"Michael Franti, Spearhead frontman and former rapper for Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, comments, 'HipHop and rap itself follows in the roots of the African griots, you know--storytellers who are tellin' what's goin' on in the community and what's happening in their life and tellin' the stories and tales of morality--generally being the watchdog and reporting the news. I consider rap to be folk music. It's a whole new art form that's been developed and a lot of people don't recognize it as that. They won't recognize it 'cause A) it's black, and B) what people are saying through the music is something a lot of people are afraid of....'

"Chris LaMarr of Without Rezervation insists, 'rap music is more than entertainment, it's a movement.... We're doing the same things our ancestors did: they told stories to relay information they wanted the younger people to have. That's how culture is passed. We're using our oratory skills to do the same thing.'" 

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