It’s not too often that two icons so closely linked in one era meet their demise within a week of each other in another era. But “not too often” reared its head in the form of Gil Scott-Heron and Geronimo (ji-Jaga) Pratt last week. Scores of cyber recollections have been recorded about the two figures, and rightfully so. It rarely goes unsaid of the process of one generation building off what the prior generation created.
The story of your great-grandmother cleaning for kindly white folks for $1.25 a day so that her daughter could eventually make $2.50 an hour, so that her son can make $7 an hour, so that…you get the point. We hear the “remember the sacrifices your elders made for you” spiel more than enough and become immune to it.
Until death happens. Then we remember again.
Pratt was known for his high-profile media appearances as a convicted murderer who spent 27 years in prison, even though the victim’s husband identified another man as the killer. His sentence was later dropped – with the aid of the venerable Johnnie Cochran – as it was revealed that the FBI infiltrated and targeted Pratt as an operative of COINTELPRO. His work with the Black Panther Party (he claims he was never a “member” ) was bred out of a desire to see lower-to-middle class Black people not get lost in the capitalist machine of the nation’s preeminent spot in the global totem pole.
His cause connected directly to an adherence to the tradition of Marcus Garvey and the elders of his community in Morgan City, La., and led, indirectly, to the rise of Cochran and the social awareness of early hip-hop, Public Enemy and Tupac included. During his incarceration, he commented that spirituality (embracing the teachings of Maat) and love of music kept him through.
His favorite artist?
Scott-Heron exploded on the scene in the early 1970s and his path was hardly linear. Raised by his grandmother until he was 10, then living in poverty with his mother in the Bronx and being one of the only Black children in a gifted school, to later palling around with Stevie Wonder and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (and a SNL appearance with the risible Richard Pryor), to the subsequent bouts with crack addiction and HIV, the highs and lows of Scott-Heron’s existence read like the classic tale of a Black artist.
Who else better to chronicle the travails of a coming of age struggle in the tradition of a West-African griot? The Conga drums, rapid fire words over the rhythm, uncompromising focus on depicting the facts on the ground was original at a time when counter-cultural movements were en vogue.
I first heard of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” as a child by my father, who like many Black men growing up in the 1970s, reserved a certain disdain for the deep bass sounds and superficial lyrics of consumerism starting to rear its head full force in the ’90s.
“Here’s some real music right here,” he would say, pointing to Scott-Heron and The Last Poets albums. “Come get you some, young blood.”
Indeed. Scott-Heron’s art lit a spark in ways that made him a deity to many, but his domestic struggles humanized him. Geronimo Pratt and Scott-Heron represented everything parents today want for their children. They also represented their worst fears.
They were academically inclined, socially aware and critical thinkers. Influencers. Empathetic. But as one was locked in the government’s crosshairs (see: COINTELPRO), the other was saddled with a love of the propane torch. Both figures left this Earth battling two conditions that arguably affect the Black community the most.
For Scott-Heron, substance abuse. For Pratt, it was high blood pressure (though it is noted he was in great shape). To their very end, these two gentlemen shared burdens the Black community continue to deal with.
Scott-Heron and Pratt are vestiges of an era that is shrinking as the months go on. They were the sparks to a global phenomenon – hip hop – that is anchored in the tradition of defiance against an “oppressive” system. Tupac, arguably rap’s greatest face, was tutored by Pratt and schooled in the tenors of Scott-Heron.
Out of the Black experience they came, but to limit their appeal and impact to Black people would vastly undermine their existence. They are illuminants, the uncles that pulled your coat to laugh at the family gatherings; the ones whose words you clung to at a young age because of how they carried it. As you get older and those gatherings become less commonplace – life tends to get in the way of such things – you think back to those times with fondness, because you know those moments can never be duplicated.
So the next best option is to create them for others. When the legacies of these two icons come to heart, there may be a brief regret. Perhaps we didn’t revere them as much as we should have while they were alive. Falling into the same trap over and over, we assume immortality in all our muses. The deaths of Michael Jackson, James Brown, Dorothy Height, Guru and others all hit the community with significant shock, followed by an outpour of awe and nostalgia.
But we’ll move on, wondering how the tradition of expression and empowerment will live on through the subsequent generations. And somehow, through a vessel — a Lupe, a Kweli, a West, a Nas, a Roots, a bell hooks, a dream hampton — political prisoners like Pratt and Mumia and Assata and artistic trailblazers of the Black experience like Scott-Heron will find a way to stay in the American consciousness.
Because of course, nature has a way of eliminating vacuums.
All the dreams you show up in are not your own. – Gil Scott-Heron