February 28, 2010

Gil Scott–Heron at Columbia College, Chicago 18th Feb 2010

Writing about web page http://www.opednews.com/articles/An-Evening-with-Gil-Scott-by-Kevin-Gosztola-100221-171.html

Gil Scott-Heron has always been an impassioned and inspiring performer, but I can’t pretend that I have always been completely comfortable with his polemic. When teaching political poetry in a Creative Writing workshop setting, I use his album Small Talk at 125th and Lennox to show the power of political writing, but also to highlight the problems in using poetry for moralising or didactic purposes. In this kind of workshop, it is useful to play students ‘The Revolution will not be Televised’...

...and/or ‘Whitey on the Moon’.

In poems like these, Heron uses rhetoric, humour and irony to critique American society, but what is more disturbing is how he uses such techniques in the poem/song ‘The Subject was Faggots’, a diatribe against homosexuals. The homophobic hatred in this poem is shocking and disturbing, and it is very difficult to understand how Scott-Heron becomes so bigoted when he is such a passionate spokesperson for black rights. Thinking about these paradoxes, however, does force students to consider where the line is between political polemic and hate speech. As Tim Dellow explains for Rock Feedback:

Like with Johnny Cash before him, there is a desire to whitewash and sanctify the artist towards latter stage of his career. This is a man made up of many faults. (Rock Feedback )

Gil Scott Heron at Columbia College

It was with some trepidation then that I attended a little-publicized “reading” by Gil Scott-Heron at Columbia College, Chicago to celebrate African History Month. The reading, however, turned into a three and a half hour show to a warm audience of Chicagoans, who continually shouted or clapped encouragement.

After a warm-up act by performance poets, Verbatim, Scott-Heron began his set by simply talking, telling stories in a very honest and unaffected way. For example, Scott-Heron told the story of how he was touring with Stevie Wonder in 1980 when the terrible news came that John Lennon had been shot. Wonder decided not to mention Lennon’s death until the end of that night’s show, and Scott-Heron recalled in moving detail how Wonder spoke about his murdered friend. The next day’s newspapers, however, reported that Wonder hadn’t mentioned Lennon’s death. Scott-Heron told us wryly to always stay until the end of the gig.

When Heron did start to play, it was simply him and a piano singing classics like ‘Your Daddy Loves You’, ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’, ‘Pieces of a Man’, ‘Winter in America’ and ‘Or Down you Fall’. Later a pianist, drummer and a harmonica player join him to blast out more upbeat numbers like ‘Three Miles Down’, ‘95 South (All of the Places We’ve Been)’, ‘Work for Peace’, ‘Is That Jazz’, and ‘Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate’. The night ended with everyone on their feet, young and old, and it fe;t more like a gospel church service than a gig. Strangely missing were the diatribes of Small Talk at 125th and Lennox, as the more aggressive polemic was replaced by a message of simple survival. Less confident and knowing than it once was, Scott-Heron’s voice sounded all the more sincere when he sang out:

From the Indians who welcomed the pilgrims
And to the buffalo that one ruled the plains
Like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds
Looking for the rain

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. blessedunrest

    I really, strongly disagree that The Subject was Faggots is a homophobic screed. I really think he’s interested in the gay men and transgendered people he sees. He doesn’t get it, and maybe he IS a bit afraid, but he’s working through it. “You just had to dig it to dig it,” he says. I think he digs it. As a gay man, I have no authority to speak for all gay men, but I do think it’s a beautiful poem. I think he satirizes his own homophobia in his own style and on his own time. I’ve listened to it over and over again, and the more I read it the more I like it.

    29 Apr 2010, 17:56

  2. I would like to agree with you on this,as I like Gil Scott-Heron’s work very much, and I respect your view. And the poem/song does become more ambiguous on the page – the way he reads it influences the way it is perceived.

    At the very least though, there are some stereotypes that I find objectionable. He calls the men he sees ‘ball-less’. They are often described as freaks and he puns on ‘balling/bawling’ to portray a very stereotypical image. He describes a transvestite as ‘it’ and when he reads this out loud, it is said with disgust.

    Maybe my problem is the ambiguity of the piece. In the final lines, he writes ‘had there been no sign on the door that said “faggot ball” / I might have entered and god only knows what might have happened’. On the one hand, you wonder, is he saying that he might have had some kind of gay encounter? But, on the other hand, when he reads it, he seems to suggest that he might have reacted violently had he accidentally entered the ball.

    It is great though if you feel that you can reclaim this song, reframe it and force it to present another meaning, and you’re right – there is more room for ambiguity when you see it on the page. Sadly though, not everyone reads it this way. When I was doing some reading around the internet, I found ‘The Subject was Faggots’ listed on a sickening website that featured ‘100 Songs Against Gay Men’.

    30 Apr 2010, 14:20

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