Yes, the Petchary has been slowed down by work and other writing pursuits. This one, though, is a tribute to two men whose urgent voices have been quietened. For now. But they have been, and will continue to be, inspiring.
Gil Scott-Heron loved the word “revolution.” After all, he emerged during the heady days of the late 1960s, when the concept had “gone viral” without the aid of computers. Even white middle-class hippies loved revolution, and even if not many of them really understood what it meant; but then Gil always seemed to me to have something of the hippy sensibility, and that is nothing to be ashamed of either.
His father was a Jamaican footballer, and the first black player for Celtic Football Club; but Gil met him for the first time when he was twenty-six, and – like many Jamaicans in fact – was brought up by his grandmother until age twelve, when he moved to live with his mother in the Bronx. And by a strange coincidence, Gil and his Midnight Band were picked to replace Bob Marley, who was due to perform with Stevie Wonder in Montreal, in 1980. Marley was too sick by then.
Gil was not just a musician (he started up in a high school band named after a local gang, the Warlords. He used to play “Go Now” unendingly. One of my favorites, too). He was also one of the first spoken word poets (earning him the nickname “the Godfather of rap” which I believe he wasn’t very comfortable with). He loved jazz and the blues and began to meld poetry into his song-writing and his music. He dropped out of college (Lincoln University, where one of his heroes, Langston Hughes, studied) and at age nineteen wrote his first novel, “Vulture,” published in 1970.
Gil was a powerful, surging spirit. One felt he had been back down this way many times before, as the song of the times, “Deja Vu,” suggests. He was loved by the “lefties,” the hippies, the Black Panthers, the rebellious young, for his fearless searching for truth and the real truth. He disliked the commercial side of music and phoneys. He loved friends and laughter (he was not one of those depressingly grim revolutionaries with no sense of humor)… and, sadly, he loved crack cocaine (and alcohol). He was jailed a couple of times, arrested several times.
His last album, “I’m New Here,” was released last year and it was his first album in sixteen years. The song “New York Is Killing Me” was sadly true. Gil never kicked his crack habit, but he kept on fighting to the end, at age 62. Take a listen to the album. It is uncomfortable but true to form, as honest as Gil always was.
“Johannesburg” was one of my favorite songs of Gil’s, written of course in the apartheid era and a couple of years before Soweto… “I’m glad to hear the resistance is growing,” he sang in his upbeat, jazzy, irresistibly funky style. I’m going to post it on this page.
And the other revolutionary? Well, he didn’t do so much writing, singing and rapping. But…yes. He was one, and he was wronged, and he overcame that wrong in a very positive way.
Geronimo Pratt (his first name was actually Elmer) was a Black Panther. He died at age 63, same generation as Gil, at his home in Tanzania (where another former Panther, Pete O’Neal, still lives in exile). But it was a long journey out to Africa for Mr. Pratt, indeed.
Of course, the Black Panthers were the FBI‘s worst nightmare during that same period when Gil was writing his revolutionary songs and poems back east. Pratt was born into a large family near New Orleans. Growing up in the segregated South helped shape his political views. He served in Vietnam and was recruited to the Black Panthers while studying at the University of Los Angeles (where the man who recruited him, Alprentic “Bunchy” Carter, was killed in a campus shootout in 1969) . I think the nickname “Geronimo” suited Pratt… as we say in the 21st century, he had “strong leadership qualities.” He became the Panthers’ Minister of Defense.
In 1971 his wife was murdered when she was eight months pregnant, apparently because of a split in the Party. Those were not just heady times; they were dangerous.
Life got very much tougher for Geronimo. He was, inevitably, constantly under surveillance by the FBI. While he was in Oakland being wire-tapped, hundreds of miles away, a school teacher was murdered on a tennis court in Santa Monica in 1968. Her husband, who was injured, initially identified someone else as the killer; but an FBI informant – a Black Panther, but by no means a friend – said it was Pratt. All kinds of underhand tactics, as it turned out years later, were used to convict him. But convicted he was, and he served 27 years, despite the best efforts of his diligent attorney, Johnny Cochran Jr. He served the first eight years in solitary confinement.
Pratt always maintained his innocence, and in 1997 he was absolved of the murder and received a $4.5 million settlement.
His African neighbor, Pete O’Neal, said Pratt was his hero, and always someone who fought for social justice. Perhaps unlike Gil Scott-Heron (and rather like Nelson Mandela) he learnt patience and forbearance during his long incarceration. But he lost none of his fighting spirit and continued his work after his release.
Another note for rap fans: Pratt was Tupac Shakur’s godfather.
A footnote from the Petchary: I was a young woman in the late sixties and early seventies, and of course at the “easily influenced” age. Revolution and rebellion seemed so exciting at the time – just as it does now to young Arabs in several countries fighting for their freedom.
I admire them. And their youth gives me a sharp little pain. Because revolution was not glamorous then, and it never will be. Its protagonists are not superheroes; they are ordinary human beings with their own weaknesses. Che Guevara ordered the killing of many people, and he didn’t even look much like that pretty poster. And those were dangerous times, as they are now. People died, pointlessly. There was in-fighting and jealousy. There was dirty politics, and mud, and guns.
But they tried. They really, really tried. And the cause of justice and freedom is still there to be fought.
A few articles of interest:
Revolutionary rapper (bbc.co.uk)