Sunday, May 29, 2011

What Gil Scott-Heron meant to me

I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of poet and spoken-word artist Gil Scott-Heron.  What Gil Scott-Heron's amazing poetry meant to me was that poems could inspire peoples' social consciousness and raise their awareness.  And that they could do so in a way that was really cool!  I could respond aesthetically and emotionally - and even politically - to the words of an African American voice whose life and life experiences were very different from my own.  I am someone who grew up in a fairly homogeneous small-town rural culture in southeast Iowa and then Nebraska.  Reading Gil Scott-Heron's poetry and listening to his rhymes made me stretch outside the boundaries of that culture to realize bigger connections in the social fabric of American life.

With his passing, many of the most influential voices of hip hop and rap have come forward to celebrate Scott-Heron's legacy as they themselves (artists ranging from Chuck D to Eminem) see their art as appreciating and perpetuating his legacy. My own experience as a reader of his amazing works came about because of my teacher Joyce Joyce, who was a fantastic and thought-provoking prof I studied under at UNL at the time. I became someone who enjoyed listening to his albums, and that in turn really helped instill in me a personal appreciation of and understanding of the importance of multicultural literature and the prominent role it should have in schools.  That appreciation was developed as an undergraduate English student who was studying literature at a time when it was still very common to experience academic reading as mostly 'canonical' literature, which is to say, mostly lit written by DWMs or Dead White Males.  Without saying anything to denigrate the voices and the amazing literary accomplishments of those authors, Gil Scott-Heron was a  prominent voice in late 20th Century American literature because he was a voice of social consciousness: hip, self-aware, humorous, politically provocative, and rhythmic.  That rhythmic sensibility helped me to see the connection between his writings and the Beat poets, whom I already loved - guys like Ginsberg and Kerouac - who were definitely inspired by jazz artists like Miles Davis and John Coletrane - and the later hip-hop artists who were part of my pop culture lexicon: from LL Cool J to Public Enemy.  

I would not have had the opportunity to make those important connections if a teacher would not have cared enough and risked enough to step outside the predictable boundaries of academic discourse to share Gil Scott-Heron with a lot of students whose reading background was much like my own.  I thank Dr. Joyce Joyce for the inspiration and am quite confident she continues to inspire students as a prof at Temple (  I am grateful she introduced me to Gil Scott-Heron and a lot of other amazing African American authors and poets whose works I will continue to appreciate and enjoy.  

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