A poet and a protester, Gil Scott-Heron captured his time — and ours

One of the premier voices of the Black Power movement is being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

By David Dennis, Jr. | The Undefeated | October 28, 2021

Gil Scott-Heron performs in Chicago on November 4, 1978. Paul Natkin/Getty Images

This summer, billionaire Richard Branson took a plane to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere and Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, followed him into space a few days later. With the world in the throes of a pandemic and the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us growing wider, it was fitting that the phrase “Whitey on the Moon” was trending on social media.

Gil Scott-Heron, who will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Sunday with the Early Influence Award, wrote the poem Whitey on the Moon, which he performed on his breakout album Pieces of a Man, on the night of the moon landing in 1969. The song featured lines such as, “I can’t pay no doctor bill/ (but Whitey’s on the moon)/ Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still/ (while Whitey’s on the moon).”

The poem captured the precise political moment of the time while also speaking directly to inequality plaguing the country in 2021. The continued relevance of Whitey on the Moon underscores the continued relevance of his music, message and social commentary. And his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction is an acknowledgment that one man influenced social justice movements five decades apart while also helping birth one of the most popular music genres in the world — hip-hop.

Scott-Heron’s father, Gil Heron, was a Jamaican soccer player who would later become the first Black member of the Scottish Celtic team. His mother, Bobbie Scott, was an opera singer. He grew up admiring Fannie Lou Hamer for her truth-telling and fearlessness and poet Langston Hughes for his literary genius and wit.

“He was a renaissance man,” Scott-Heron once said of Hughes. “He wrote songs; he wrote poetry; he wrote columns; he wrote essays. And as a writer myself, I knew that you couldn’t use just one form and get every idea across.”

Scott-Heron’s love of Hughes led him to the writer’s alma mater, Lincoln University, a historically Black school in Pennsylvania. The musician’s time at Lincoln, in the late-’60s, overlapped with some of the most volatile moments in American history — the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the emergence of the Black Panther Party. During this time, Scott-Heron was writing a novel, The Vulture, and formulating what would be Pieces of a Man.

Backstage portrait of musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron (left) as he clasps hands with rapper Common (right) at SummerStage in Central Park in New York on June 27, 2010. JACK VARTOOGIAN/GETTY IMAGES

And he was protesting.

Carl Cornwell, a legendary jazz musician who met Scott-Heron while also studying at Lincoln, recalls a protest on campus over the lack of emergency medical care. A drummer in Cornwell’s ensemble had an asthma attack and died because there wasn’t a doctor on campus and the nurse was unreachable. “Gil was one of the more outspoken brothers on campus and was pushed to the forefront of that movement,” Cornwell recalled. “We ended up shutting down the school. When we came back from winter break, there was an ambulance in front of the infirmary.”

Pieces of a Man was released in 1971, after a push from producer Bob Thiele to evolve Scott-Heron’s spoken-word efforts into more of a jazz and blues blend with the musician’s friend, pianist Brian Jackson, as his right-hand man.

“We both understood there were enough songs about partying and getting down,” Jackson said. “We just felt that if we could actually write any type of music that we felt was needed, we felt that consciousness-raising, and adopting the tradition of the West African griot, was where we wanted to go.”

Pieces of a Man is full of anguish and hope, a masterpiece in which Scott-Heron establishes himself as one of the premier musical voices of the Black Power movement. It was a role he’d continue to embrace in his subsequent work. “No Knock” from his second album, Free Will, is a scathing indictment of the police and policies that led to the execution of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. “Winter in America” (1974) talked about the destruction of democracy, “Johannesburg” (1975) was about breaking down the injustices of apartheid, and “We Almost Lost Detroit” in 1977 was about nuclear proliferation and who suffers the most.