Gil Scott-Heron: The Power of Words, Faith and Paradox

In 1977 I was an undergraduate student at Howard University right after the album “It’s Your World” came out featuring Gil Scott Heron, Brian Jackson and the Midnight Band live. I know that it was 1977 because the Alex Haley’s TV series “ROOTS” was being aired on television for the first time.  It was a monumental time of heightened cultural awareness for black people.

Somehow I had met this Muslim sister named Iman, who was a part of the Black community.  She needed a ride home from a job training program at OIC on 16th Street NW.  She was going through some tough times, pregnant, no husband around and trying to get her life together. I didn’t know much about her struggle just as i didn’t know much about the struggles of many of my Black heroes and heroines.  

She had been taken in by Gil Scott Heron’s road manager and his wife at their home which was just a few blocks from the legendary seafood spot, “The Shrimp Boat” in South East Washington, DC.  I can recall them inviting me to watch “Roots” at their home after I dropped that sister off.  My challenge was to get back to my study group at Howard University and not to get caught up in my service to this sister.

I would later learn from the biographical song “Hello Sunday, Hello Road!” that there was some tension between the manager and Gil Scott-Heron….”Manager we had just couldn’t manage so Midnight managed right along….”.  (1977 Bridges Arista).  But I remember getting a free copy of the live album, “It’s Your World” which remains one of my favorites. 

When Muslims were part of the Black Movement

In those days there was a strong symbiotic nexus between being Muslim and being a politically progressive black person in America.  It was a time when the Pan-African experience, Black Nationalism and Muslims enjoyed a brotherhood in the Black community.

I found out later that sister Iman was married to the howling-soulful sounding Muslim saxophone player, Bilal Sunni Ali aka Spirit in Gil Scott-Heron’s “Midnight Band” but something had happened between them.  Although, I was not Muslim it didn’t matter.  I was still a brother with a mandate from the prophetic speech of our poet and griot, Gil Scott-Heron.  As a young Black man in my early 20’s I was so enamored by these great artists. Howard University was a hot-bed for activist, progressive scholarship and poet-artist-activists. I tried my best to be on the scene – while studying chemistry – to be a youth activist, to learn from listening to the poetry of Gil Scott-Heron, Haki Madhubuti, E. Ethelbert Miller, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez and The Last Poets to help my political consciousness grow.

On May 5th 1973 a co-ed social service fellowship, Ubiquity – The Family, was founded at Howard University.  It was inspired by the Lincoln University student group called the 507 Club.  In 1975 I joined and would soon become its president. Our mission: to be people of service – at all places at the same time.

“Now more than ever all the family must be together every brother every where feels the time is in the air, as common blood flows through common veins and the common eyes all see the same…now more than ever all the family must be together”
– From the album…Winter in America on Flying Dutchman in 1974

So when we encountered this message it connected so much with our organization that we these words apart of our tradition.  It was consistent with our concept of what our organization “Ubiquity” should be, a Black family of servant leaders.  At that time, I was not a Muslim but I was what my mother would call a Muslim “sympathizer”.

Sister Iman enrolled in the OIC program. It was required to pass a regular drug test. She was a Muslim trying to recover from drug addiction and take care for her her pregnancy.  I was able to help the sister to find an apartment to move out from the road managers home. We went to find furniture to prepare for the delivery of her baby to have the apartment furnished.  She was a Muslim sister and baby placed in my care for some reason and it was my job to care for her and her baby, maybe like Joseph took care of Mary and her baby, Jesus (Isa, The messiah).  This is what the Bro. Gil and Brian had taught us in their music and poetry, “Your daddy loves you……Me and your mama had some troubles”, but “Black man come down and sit beside us”.

Salaam Alaikum – Peace Go With You Brother (Winter in America)

“Peace go with your brother don’t make no sense for us to be arguing now”.  They gave us the lesson of what it meant to be a Black man, a father, a brother, a son and to be part of the Black family and the Muslim sister was definitely a part of that Black family. The sister was trying to get off of heroin, she was just a sister and I was just a brother. When that baby was born she gave her the name “Fatiha”, the opening chapter of the Qur’an and she taught me many lessons about Islam.

I visited the group house where Gil and part of the group lived on 16th St. just below The Malcolm X Park in Washington DC during the period of the 70’s.  I got a chance to see how they created their music and poetry reading the newspaper reflecting on current events political and otherwise. But as I recall my visit was in the social call that was to inform Bilal about the status of his family. Perhaps I was naïve but it was only a dialogue between two brothers who care for the same thing.

Paradox

The life-style of “the culture warrior” was full of contradictions. Bilal and Iman’s relationship to Islam was strained.  I would learn later that Bilal was “messed up” and that’s why he was absent. Before I entered into this world I only thought about the beauty of the message that they were sending through their music.  I would later learn about the ugly underbelly as well – there was so much drug activity in the band that they had tried to pay everybody the narcotics. From my third hand information, I learned that “Doctor” Barnett who still had a family to feed decided to leave the band.  It was a great paradox, a contradiction in terms: a music and a message so positive and a life-style so negative.

New World Percussion Ensemble
The message in the music and poetry was passed on to younger musicians from the foundation laid by groups like Gil Scott-Heron, Brian Jackson and The Midnight Band (G-B-MB) and Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) and “Nation” – African Liberation Art Ensemble, and others.  We fed off the message to commit ourselves to remain a positive force.
Years later, the late Mamadi Nyasuma, would form the New World Percussion Ensemble.  NWPE inspired me to pick up my horns and I joined the band with a commitment to create a new positive music as the Muslim side-man, Johari Abdul-Malik,  on trumpet, flugelhorn, flute, soprano saxophone, conch shells, percussion and vocals.  We wrote and performed original material and adapted “great Black music – ancient to the future”.

In “The Bottle” (It’s Your World 1976, Arista Records) Brother Gil’s verse said, “If ever you come looking for me you know where I’m bound to be in the bottle”, in the New World version we changed the words to say, “You know where I’m NOT going to be….. in the Bottle!”.

When NWPE would perform we would hold up those who preceded us.  We would maintain our own commitment to the spirit of the message, unity, peace, struggle, service to the oppressed, to clean living (getting out of the bottle) and to righteousness.

But it was Gil Scott-Heron, Brian Jackson, The Midnight Band with Bilal Sunni Ali playing with the spirit that inspired us as the next generation to pick up the mantle to speak “Truth to power”.  We became cultural warriors. They inspired us to perform “music with a message”.  We studied the references to names and events to get hip to what was happening in the movements nationally and around the world.

Faith

In 1982 at the age of 26 while in graduate school at Howard University I had accepted Islam. Almost 20 years later, I was with Bill Sunni Ali at an event for Imam Jamil Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown.  We were reflecting on our tradition of struggle in America, our brotherhood in Islam and Bilal turned to me in the gathering and said something like, “Brother I just want to thank you for taking care of my family when I was messed up”. Wow, I had never thought about our connection for years. I had taken care of this brother’s family.  He told me that his now ex-wife had shared with him about those difficult days when she was struggling to get off drugs alone. He said she told him that I never approached her sexually or tried to take advantage of her as a woman in a vulnerable situation.  That spirit came out of the message and the legacy that was left from the words of Gil and Brian and the Midnight band.

Critique

Many of my friends took the romantic fantasy from this period.  They were waiting for the Black revolution, with our “Red, Black and Green jump suit that he been saving for just the right occasion”. (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised 1974 Flying Dutchman Records).


Gil Scott-Heron, the town crier, was reflecting the times but many of us got locked on Red, Black and Green street.  We got high on our Blackness and too many got strung out on drugs and dreamt about a Black utopia.  We were at odds with America, while affirming our American heritage.  We saw America as “other”, as foreign and Gil says, “the people en mass have been bludgeoned into bicentennial submission or bicentennial suspicion, I fall into the latter category”.  (Bicentennial Blues, It’s Your World 1976 Arista Records). Many Blackamericans were a part of that concept of otherness, that American critique.  It was an ambivalence with our Blackamerican identity and Blackamerican Muslims were no exception.

Changed My Stage

Years later, I left the bandstand as a cultural warrior and was called to be the first Muslim Chaplain at Howard University and to the pulpit of the mosque as a preacher in Islam and outreach director at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center.  I left the contradictions of the musicians life-style.  But in post 911 I would have new contradictions. Contradictions from terrorists who claim the struggle (jihad) for the oppressed.  Many of them are dealing with pornography (Osama Ben Laden), arrested on solicitation-prostitution (Anwar Al-Awlaki), night-clubbing with lap dancers the night before their fallacious-jihad (911 high-jackers).

The Future: What About Now

Paradox and hypocrisy will always be with us.  Be proud of who you are while struggling to correct the errors of elements of ourselves, our nation, our race, our gender, our social class or our faith. I have come to terms with this tradition of struggle, speaking truth to power and a love for my country with its words, its faiths and its paradoxes.  I led the Jumah prayers at the U.S. Capitol on the first Friday after Barack Obama was sworn in as president,  Without thinking I began to pray for our president and his family.

I never thought that would happen, not that I prayed against other presidents, but I had grown spiritually to a bigger vision. This change, this revolution in values with its contradiction was “no rerun” the revolution was “live”.

I wish we could have this spirit of community from the days of Brother Gil and others again but this time bigger, more inclusive, universal, holistically healthy, cleaner and free of so many of our contradictions.

Now I know that some of that message of struggle came out of the pain that Brother Gil was experiencing in his personal life. But, it gave us all some lessons to continue to struggle, to learn, to work for peace, to grow, to work for the environment, ‘like the forest buried beneath the highways” (Winter in America 1974 Arista), to end the abuse of prisoners and so much more.  We need to get busy.

In the words of Gil Scott Heron,

“Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn, did that just apply to dying in the jungles of Vietnam, ……………wonder?”

2 Responses to Gil Scott-Heron: The Power of Words, Faith and Paradox

  1. JBP says:

    “Now more than every all the family must be together…” I first heard “Peace Go With You Brother” on WPFW back in the 70s. I recorded it right off the air on my tape deck. I believe that this is a most significant part of Gil Scott’s message as our young people become conned and intoxicated by the vulgarity in the popular music that is marketed to them to consume. The reality is that for many of us and particularly our young people they are, have been and will be left behind. And many of us just don’t care about each other. “…and now when I see you all I can say is peace go with you brother.” The reality of these lyrics are part of Dr. King’s “dream.” Gil Scott has left this worldly existence at the young age of 62. We shouldn’t forget him and the best way to honor his memory is to pass his message on to our succeeding generations.

  2. R.G. says:

    Brother, your words about GSH really struck a chord with me. Like you, I was a HU student in the early 70s (School of Communications) and many of your experiences, especially when it comes to the progressive scene at HU parallel mine. I remain motivated to serve and uplift people, especially black people, as a result of the beautiful and inspiring years I spent at the HU and the absolutely wonderful, talented and committed people I met there.

    One of my best friends and running buddies continues to be Donald Temple, who led the founding of Ubiquity at Howard.

    I’ve read several tributes to GSH since he passed last week and yours may be the best.

    Stay Bison strong!

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