Gil Scott-Heron: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Rahman Johnson

Rahman is a TV News Anchor with a Master's Degree in Strategic Communications and Leadership.

Names such as Kanye West, Jay-Z or Eminem may be familiar, but none of their work would exist if not for the work of Gil Scott-Heron. His name may not be familiar, but the work of this artist, popular in the 1960s and 70s, is still relevant today.

The Godfather of Hip-Hop

Gil Scott-Heron was a jazz and blues musical artist who was responsible for making music that urged action in society. He used the spoken word format, which involves performance-based spoken poetry. Spoken word poetry and lyrics often involve rhyme, word play, and story-telling aspects. Sounds like modern hip-hop, doesn't it?

The majority of his music dealt with political and social issues of the time. He called himself a bluesologist, which he defined as 'a scientist concerned with the origins of the blues'. His audience was mainly African American, though his message transcended race. His music was popular in the counterculture movement of the 1960s, which was concerned with protesting governmental intervention in Vietnam and re-defining what some saw as restrictive cultural norms of the 1940s and 1950s. His most famous and quoted work was a spoken word track called 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'.

Origins of a Legend

Heron was born on April Fools' Day, 1949, to a middle-class Chicago family. His mother was a professional opera singer and his Jamaican father was the first black man to play for the Celtic Football Club in Glasgow. When he was pretty young his parents separated, and he went to live with his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee. She died when he was 12 years old and he moved back to the Bronx, NY to live with his mother. Back in New York, he enrolled at DeWitt Clinton High School, but he did so well that he won a full scholarship to the private Fieldston School. As one of only five black students at this private academy, Heron honed a boldness that he used to define his style.

After graduation, he went to the historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. One of his reasons for choosing Lincoln was because it was the alma mater of Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes. The Harlem Renaissance was a primarily African American artistic movement in the 1920s that inspired writers, musicians, and other artists of many ethnicities for decades.

Heron met Brian Jackson at Lincoln University, and they formed the band Black and Blues. After two years at Lincoln, he took some time off to write two novels, The Vulture and The Nigger Factory. He moved back to New York and settled in Chelsea. The Vulture was published in 1970. One interesting note is that even though he didn't finish Lincoln, he went on to get a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University.

The Words and Songs

Although Gil Scott-Heron was a very talented writer, one of his first loves was music. In 1970, after the release of his book, he released his first musical project, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. The LP had 15 tracks and covered topics like consumerism, the white middle class misunderstanding of Black America, and the hypocrisy of some black revolutionaries. Many of the songs actually started out as poems that he later adapted to become lyrics.

His poems were often described as powerful, and they motivated people. Because of his desire to convey a message, he spoke in a direct tone over much of his music. That use of voice tone and inflection was very innovative for the time and inspired others to do the same thing. That is why he is credited with being the Godfather of Hip-Hop.

The next year he released Pieces of a Man; it was a much more conventional project. Free Will came in 1972 and 1974 brought Winter in America. It was a while before he really pushed forward with another major political track, but in 1975 his song 'Johannesburg' was a rallying cry to work toward ending apartheid in South Africa. He only made four albums during the 80's and was dropped from Arista Records in 1985. He still continued to tour.

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