"The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning or white people," intoned Gil Scott-Heron in the early '70s, nearly two decades before Public Enemy put political hip-hop on the map with "Fight the Power." Widely heralded as "the godfather of rap," the Johns Hopkins University graduate has gone on to create a powerful legacy as both musician and poet, novelist and agitator.
What's sometimes forgotten, though, is the degree to which his music also conveys a razor-sharp wit as well as a romantic sensibility that's rarely found in the realm of politics. (If there's a more heartbreakingly beautiful song than 1994's "Give Her a Call," I'd like to hear it.)
"If you wanted to classify us as political, that depended on your point of view more so than ours," says Scott-Heron in the deeply soulful voice that graces his records. "We like to think that people look at us as more well-rounded than just political. From the time we started with 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' — which we considered satire — we thought we were pretty funny and had some pretty good lines in there. But everybody else looked at it as political, and we did too after a while."
And not without reason. Scott-Heron's rise to fame came at a time when Richard Nixon was drafting his enemies list and J. Edgar Hoover was continuing to expand domestic spying on civil rights activists.
"We were under surveillance for quite a while, and I think everybody knew it," claims the Chicago-born artist, who has lived in Harlem since 1996. "We were being watched to see what we would do. And we were uncomfortable at the time, because we had [Black Panther] Bilal Sunni Ali and other people in the band who had been politically active in different directions, and we felt as though we had a right to be that way."
Unlike many of the rappers for whom he paved the way, Scott-Heron doesn't like to talk about his eventual run-ins with the law. He reportedly pled guilty to drug-use charges in 2001, and those problems continued throughout the decade. Asked how it felt to be going through all that while George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were occupying the White House, Scott-Heron answers the question from a broader perspective.
"I think that everybody went through it," he says. "I mean, whether they went through it to the degree that I did, I don't know. But I'm saying, we've all been through something of a nightmare."
But these days, Scott-Heron's life appears to be on a long-awaited upswing: He shared a bill with Mos Def at Carnegie Hall last summer and has just signed to XL Recordings, home of the White Stripes and M.I.A. He's currently recording in Manhattan's Clinton Studio, working on what will be his first studio album in more than a decade.
Even in the realm of politics, Scott-Heron has become cautiously optimistic: "The first thing that Obama has to do is pull us out of this hole," says the man whose mournful "Winter in America" sounds as chilling today as it did decades ago. "We're always looking forward to spring, but we're looking with a brand-new attitude now."