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Musician Gil Scott-Heron Dies At 62

(Soundbite of song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised")

Mr. GIL SCOTT-HERON (Musician, Poet): (Singing) You will not be able to stay home, brother.


Activist/musician Gil Scott-Heron, whose music was a seamless blend of politics, percussion and poetry, has died.

(Soundbite of song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip out for beer during commercials because the revolution will not be televised.

MARTIN: The 62-year-old author and poet, whose sharp commentary on the problems of black people inspired generations of rappers and other musicians, died yesterday in New York City. He fell ill after a trip to Europe.

NPR's Allison Keyes has this remembrance.

(Soundbite of song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning or white people.

ALLISON KEYES: Gil Scott-Heron spoke his mind and lived his life without apology.

(Soundbite of song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) The revolution will not go better with Coke. The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath. The revolution will put you in the driver's seat.

KEYES: Scott-Heron's 1970 debut album included the song many critics call his masterpiece, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." It's a diatribe, a clarion call out to a black community that seemed paralyzed by what he saw as the mass media's trivialization of the social upheaval, poverty and other challenges affecting people of color.

In 1985, he told NPR...

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: Well, I always thought if a song wasn't going to say anything it ought to be an instrumental.

KEYES: Scott-Heron said he'd always written songs that were about something and that there were a lot of things to comment about in the public and personal lives of the black community. He joked...

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: That's a great pitfall. I understand that's one of the big problems with my music.

KEYES: But the issues he dealt with were no joke at all.

(Soundbite of song, " Johannesburg")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) Say what's the word. Tell me brother, have you heard from Johannesburg?

KEYES: From this anthem of solidarity with blacks in then white-ruled South Africa to his 1980s criticism of nuclear power to his scornful attacks on the late President Ronald Reagan, Scott-Heron spoke out about ugly problems he says other songwriters weren't interested in covering. But in an interview last year with NPR's Guy Raz, he made it clear he didn't like being called a militant.

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: I'm not militant. They the ones got the guns. I'm just trying to get what I paid for. They call it what they want. I am that way, and I've been that way all my life. And when I sing them songs and stuff, I mean that.

GREG GAVIN: Well, he was the real deal.

KEYES: NPR engineer Greg Gavin is a guitarist who toured with Gil Scott-Heron in the U.S. and Canada in 1983 and 1984. He says Scott-Heron suffered the burden of being famous and that some admirers looked at him almost like a deity.

GAVIN: Gil was like, hey, I'm eating lunch, you know, don't bother me.

KEYES: But Gavin also remembers Scott-Heron as a man who was sincere about his love for his people and a man with the courage to speak truth to power.

GAVIN: Gil was tremendously courageous, especially artistically, because the stances and the positions that he took, of course, were not easy.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm New Here")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) No matter how far wrong you've gone, you can always turn around.

KEYES: Gil Scott-Heron was born April 1, 1949 in Chicago. He was raised in Jackson, Tennessee but later moved to New York City, where he was inspired by Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes. He took 16 years off from recording and spent time in jail for a crack cocaine addiction he told NPR last year he had not recovered from.

But Gil Scott-Heron said the title song from his 2010 album, "I'm New Here," included a line that applied to everyone, including himself.

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: If you can find somebody who never made a mistake, you have to start a religion. You can catch yourself sometimes on your way to doing something wrong and remind yourself you don't have to do that.

KEYES: Gil Scott-Heron didn't write that song, but he says he could have. The first line reads: I did not become someone different that I did not want to be. And as for that long-awaited revolution, Scott-Heron told NPR in the 1985 interview, the first place revolution happens is in the mind. Gil Scott-Heron was 62 years old.

Allison Keyes, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm New Here")

Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) And I'm seeing things like a snake. It may be crazy, but I'm the closest thing I have to what's real. Turn around, turn around, turn around. You may come full circle and be new here again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.