Review of Gil-Scot Heron’s album “A New Black Poet – Small Talk at 125th and Lenox”
When putting on music that stands the test of time, and that provokes you to believe the artist, if not the spirit of creation with which the record was made is still alive, it can be hard to isolate the feelings felt. But I think in my own instances I usually gravitate towards a balance between these two.
The first is the almost magical notion that the artist was able to craft something so deeply rooted in an understanding of the present, that it carries over long after its creation. It is quite literally the closest I have gotten to experience the presence of ghosts.
The second is the depressive nature of this experience. If music, or art of any form for that matter, speaks vocally to the present, it is because we have failed, in some way or another, to enact on the insight it offered at the time it was made. It serves as an example of the reality that we hand over our power with relative passivity. It is a paradox that on the one hand, we mythologize artists who are able to stand the test of time, and simultaneously ensure their legacy by living in a world that does not participate in their vision, one of change and progression.
Gil Scott Heron’s live record “A New Black Poet – Small Talk at 125th and Lenox” is far from an exception to this feeling. The other night I put it on spontaneously and was quickly seized by the relevance of the now 50-year-old record. On the track “Enough”, Scott-Heron opens with “Had a poem here somewhere called ‘Enough’ that I’d like to do because every once in awhile a brother gets shot somewhere for no reason, a brother gets his head kicked in for no reason. And you wonder just exactly what in the hell is enough”. It has been three months since Christopher Whitefield, a black man struggling with mental health, was shot and killed by the East Feliciana police department in Louisiana for having reportedly stolen a raw chicken, and cases like these are hardly infrequent. Later in the track, Scott-Heron says “I hope you do not think that a vote for John Kennedy took you off my shit list. Because in the street there will only be black and white. There will be no Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives, Moderates or any of the rest of that shit you have used to make me forget to hate.” In the wake of the Democratic Iowa caucus results that made for scandal due to the faultiness of a mobile software developed to tally votes, as well as the acquittal of Donald Trump for his impeachment trial, it seems that politicians have reached a new height when it comes to being transparent about corruption. And yet many of us are bargaining heavily on the idea that politicians can and will make great changes for us.
When I was listening to “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox”, I was tormented by the question of whether art stands the test of time because it is able to be in conversation with the present, and simultaneously predict aspects of the future, or if the future is in fact a product of our failure to collectively engage with the past. I listened to Gil Scott-Heron and could not help but feel a sense of misery in regard to the upcoming election. In this growingly complicated and consistently frightening time, we will have fewer opportunities to stand in awe of great artists who seem to have deep understandings of the world, and at the end of the day compromise for politicians because we believe they represent a sense of what is realistic. And so perhaps, we should spend our energy nourishing the legacies of great musicians such as Gil Scott-Heron by challenging the work as opposed to absorbing it, building around it as opposed to archiving it.