The Revolution is Live
August 6, 2011
Echoes of a visionary poet and his revolutionary voice shook the room at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC last Sunday.
Up to 150 people packed the Cullen Room at the restaurant’s 5th and K Street location to celebrate the life and work of Gil Scott-Heron, the musician and legendary spoken-word artist whose powerful voice gave political and cultural inspiration to movements against racism, inequality and injustice.
Scott-Heron died in May at the age of 62, leaving a generation of artists and activists reflecting on his impact on music, Black culture and struggle. And on Sunday, the sound of live jazz and blues bouncing off of walls adorned with the images of Harlem Renaissance icons provided the perfect backdrop for “celebrating a master of artistic creation and impassioned resistance.”
That’s how organizers billed the event, which was titled, “Revolution Immortalized: A Tribute to the Prophetic Work of Gil Scott-Heron.” Sponsored by Teaching for Change, Empower DC , Washington Peace Center, Praxis Committee and We Act Radio, 1480 am, the program brought together an array of local poets, artists, activists, and musicians who passionately recalled Scott-Heron’s legacy and his influence on their work. Their words were often accompanied by a blues-jazz fusion of percussion, wind, and bass.
A highlight of the evening was the testimony and performance by Brother Saleem Waters, who performed with Scott-Heron. He moved the audience with his stories about the late artist and played “Winter in America ” on wind controller. Waters said coming to Sunday’s event was closure for him after mourning Scott-Heron’s passing.
The event was emceed by David Thurston – a local activist whose artist moniker is “BYPO PHOENIX” – who explained the inspiration for the event’s title: a Twitter post after it was announced that Scott-Heron had died that said, “The revolution will be immortalized.”
A young high school student and poet, Lauren Nesbitt, later quipped in her piece, “The Revolution will not be televised, it will be tweeted.” Nesbitt, or Poetic Heist, is part of the DC Youth Poetry Slam Team, which had other young poets perform at the tribute.
During the program, Thurston poured a libation in an African-inspired offering in Scott-Heron’s memory. And following Latin American tradition, the call “Brother Gil Scot-Heron” was followed with the audience’s response: “¡Presente!”
Local writer and performer Holly Bass performed her poems, “Black Broadway” and “In The District,” eliciting the sounds and sensations of the district’s historic U Street. She juxtaposed the reverence for D.C. natives like Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes – an idol of the young Scott-Heron – and the sweeping gentrification that has come to define the nation’s capital.
Observations of such social issues affecting people of color in D.C. point to an unfortunate continuity in the type of racial inequality that Scott-Heron spoke out against, as expressed, for example, in “Whitey on the Moon.”
Indeed, “Our streets should look like their streets” was part of the hook in a track by local D.C. hip-hop artist, Head-Roc, who also performed on Sunday.
Shaped by the Black Power era and influenced by figures like Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton, the politics of Scott-Heron and their connection to local struggles for social justice in D.C. was a running theme at the event. So the organizers’ choice of a beneficiary organization of the evening’s proceeds – Empower DC – could not have been better.
Parisa Nouriz, executive director of Empower DC, spoke about the work that the grassroots community organization is doing to fight for economic justice for the low-income residents of Washington, DC. That work, she said, is in part an attempt to walk in the footsteps of those like Scott-Heron. In that vein, Empower DC has partnered with Head-Roc, using art as a vehicle for community organizing.
Head-Roc – “the mayor of Chocolate City ” – rocked the house with a number of tracks from his Empower DC Project album which highlight the various campaigns that Empower DC has taken on, including struggles for affordable housing, childcare, and public education. Head-Roc’s impacting and engaging style reminded the crowd that no tribute to Scott-Heron would be complete without hip-hop, the genre whose birth was inspired by the unique expression of the self-proclaimed “bluesologist” who is widely considered to be “the godfather of hip-hop.”
D.C. poet Metaphor strung together Scott-Heron titles in a verse, delivering “a message for the messenger” and recalling “small talk at 125th and Lenox.” Metaphor referenced Scott-Heron’s sharp critiques against Ronald Reagan and observed that Scott-Heron was always “building bridges” even though he was a moving target.
Reminding the audience of bridges of solidarity built by Scott-Heron, DC Youth Slam Team poet Jonathan Tucker performed a powerful spoken-word piece about reconciling his Jewish identity and his disgust with Zionist oppression and apartheid. Just last year, Scott-Heron cancelled a performance in Tel Aviv out of respect for the Palestinian boycott movement, saying he would not do a show in Israel “until everyone is welcome there.”
The evening was wrapped up with a set by the Neo-Groove Movement, a band described as a “Retro-Progressive Jazz Fusion Collective.” They played stirring renditions of several Scott-Heron pieces, including “Inner City Blues” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
In a poem titled, “Immortalized” (excerpted below), BYPO PHOENIX remembered Scott-Heron’s greatness:
black jesus baby
poet and prophet
his holy word
a dream deferred
in meter blurred
words of steel
rest in peace
With the revolutionary spirit of an artistic legend pulsing through the room, “Revolution Immortalized” affirmed that Brother Gil lives, and last Sunday he played in D.C.