Looking back at Gil Scott-Heron, and an interview with Cleveland Watkiss MB

We are becoming obsessed with celebrity deaths. There is a website, apparently popular amongst Reddit users, called ‘www.deathlist.net’ which ranks a list of famous people an expert committee has selected on the basis of how likely they are to die within the next year. Kirk Douglas if you’re reading this, watch out. In the year after his death in 2009, Michael Jackson famously outsold every other artist. If we had such a morbid fascination before, the death tsunami of 2016 did nothing to slake our thirst.

Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ ‘look up here man, I’m in heaven’, with accompanying nightmarish hospital bed music video for ‘Lazarus’, directed musical reflection to the afterlives of the late greats. It is refreshing, then, that on Easter bank holiday weekend this year, the Jazz Café put on a party for what would have been Gil Scott-Heron’s 69th birthday. Its cheesy to say, but for such an artist, a celebration of life is far more appropriate.

Gil Scott-Heron is recorded by biographers as a musician, poet, and author. But to delineate his art really misses the point. In his sleeve notes to his 1993 album ‘Spirits’, Heron writes that his poems and songs ‘have been gifts from the Spirits - so perhaps these songs and poems are ‘spirituals’.

“His work was more than just the creative project for the individual, or a showcase of his own talent. It was essential to him that the united thrust of his work be understood as an ongoing effort for civil rights and justice everywhere.”

Scott-Heron’s lyric is disarmingly blunt, stating the realities of corruption, discrimination and degradation, as if to say ‘This is America’. The chorus of a track released on ‘Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day’ in 1974, 'Winter in America’ repeats: ‘It's winter, winter in America, and ain't nobody fighting, 'cause nobody knows what to save, save your soul, Lord knows from Winter in America.’ He draws on the style historically used by poets in the black community, telling stories which were easy to grasp, with a flow which had real power, ready to be transposed into songs. One of his most celebrated works ‘The Revolution will not be televised’, released on his 1971 album ‘Pieces of Man’, satirises contemporary political disillusionment in favour of commercial culture. And, lo and behold, almost 40 years on, the United States of America elected a hotelier as president.

During his lifetime, Scott-Heron was heralded as the godfather of hip-hop and rap, titles which he resisted. But what these monikers show is that Scott-Heron helped to permanently instate a space for minority empowerment in popular music. True, we may not have heeded his warning, it may still seem like Winter in America. However, racial empowerment is now such an established feature of music today that it’s easy to disregard how important it is that music continues on that path. Scott-Heron wrote a song called ‘Johannesburg’ during the apartheid. The chorus repeats ‘What’s the word? Johannesburg’. When he toured there, he turned the mic to the audience after singing ‘What’s the word?’, at which there was confused silence. Censorship had meant that the people of Johannesburg, for whom the song had been written, hadn’t heard it until that concert. One of the advantages of the lawlessness of the world wide web is that it’s getting harder and harder to silence the oppressed.

In 2018, the jazz explosion means that we pay more heed to people like Scott-Heron, as his posthumous birthday party at the Jazz Cafe clearly demonstrates. I spoke to Cleveland Watkiss, MBE, one of the performing acts. Watkiss is a British jazz musician, best known for his virtuosic vocals. In 2017, he was awarded ‘Jazz Vocalist of the Year’ at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards. Watkiss’ way into the music industry was through the soundsystem culture in North East London where he grew up.

I asked him how he encountered people like Scott-Heron at the beginning of his career:

‘In an indirect way, my background is more in reggae and dub, I grew up with that music. The music that really inspired me from that genre was quite political music, artists that would speak out about things happening in society. I didn’t know Gil Scott-Heron’s music back then, but I got to his music some time in the nineties. Looking at how hip-hop music evolved, his name always comes up as him being the grandfather of that music. So, I came to his work relatively late, but there’s parallels in the stuff I was listening to as a youngster growing up, the music of Jamaican artists.’

What’s the subversive potential of that music?

‘It’s more important now than it ever was, with what’s going on in the world today [laughs]. Gil Scott-Heron’s music and the music I was listening to is still crying out today.’

Do you think that music embodies the sort of message that people like Gill Scott-Heron were trying to put across?

‘The thing is music’s not really going to save the day, otherwise it would have done it a long time ago. The assumption is that its a sort of medicine for people, to make them stop, reflect, take stock on who they are, what they want to be. If it was going to do it, it would have done it in the 60s and 70s. And without a doubt the problems are the same. Music can be a catalyst in a sense, but ultimately its on human beings to make that change.’

Does soundsystem culture have a different message in terms of its potential for political progress?

‘Yeah, I think there were more artists championing the lyric and the rhetoric back in the 70s than there are today. With the birth of hip-hop, it had its roots in a cultural message, and getting back to the teaching and education of black history, and then it moved away from that, which is a whole other political argument, in terms of who was owning the music, who was finding the artists. Hip- hop moved in quite a weird direction.’

What do you think about the relationship between jazz and hip-hop?

‘I see the parallels in that with hip-hop artists, their lyric and their wordplay is their saxophone if you like. There are quite a few young artists who are moving the music more into the political realm. Its important that music mirrors the time and the feeling and what’s going on in the social political world.'

What about the music scene in London, the Jazz Cafe etc. being more commercial?

‘It's good that a generation of youngsters are discovering the music of people like Gil Scott-Heron, and the history of that music. Like I said, music’s not going to change the world, but its function is more to medicate.’

Are you evolving more towards jazz?

‘I guess there’s all of it. Its like cooking. I’ve got a lot of different spices that I can use. Once you understand the levels of music and how it functions, you’re able to choose your spices accordingly if you like. And I think about it like that as opposed to genres. I mean I understand why genres exist, but its all about the cake at the end of the day’

What are the most important origins for your music?

'To me, its really about drawing on the history of the music and knowing where its coming from, understanding the line. Music doesn’t come from thin air, it comes from a whole culture and development in time. Its important to understand that line and where its come from.

For me, thats going into the history of the music that has developed here, Lovers Rock, Jungle, the people that came before that, R&B, Jazz artists - Harry Beckett, Joel Harriott - how that music developed, and absorbing that, having those spices in your music. That just makes a better you, a better sound'

What about the international scene?

‘I think Africa’s got an incredible scene going on, especially South. I feel a real amazing young scene that’s developing out there. Shabaka [Hutchings] goes to South Africa quite a lot and works with a South African bad. I think Destination Africa is the jazz capital, outside of the UK and the States. [name] his music really blew my mind. He’s got two or three albums out, its almost like really early primitive singing and approach to jazz, taking its back to its raw, almost like John Lee Hooker type of approach, which I like. I really like music when you can’t predict or feel where it’s all going, when its loose and raw and it doesn’t have all the production necessarily and its still got that roughness about it.'

Do you think that rawness means its important that music comes from just playing it?

‘Absolutely. When its coming out of a lot of these schools, which it does today, you don’t have that rawness and street element, if that’s the right word, I don’t know if that is the right word, but the community side of how music is assimilated and brought to the people. When it’s coming from a blackboard or a piece of paper, it’s not reflective of its power, when it doesn’t have that connection with the tradition and the reason the music was developed initially. When it doesn’t have that rawness it becomes still and static, and one-dimensional. It always needs to reflect on its origins and have that spirit in music. If it doesn’t I don’t even know if I want to call it music'.

Does genre have more potential as its becoming more fluid?

‘Genres are becoming more invisible today. People like what they like. The line or the thing we call jazz is a huge world, and I think that it means different things. The canvas is much broader.'

So how has Gill Scott-Heron influenced the musical scene that you’re a part of?

‘I know that he’s always had a strong fan base, going back to the time when I used to go to Dingwalls, listening to Giles Peterson and Patrick Forge who will always be playing that style and those records, and here we are at something like tomorrow at the Jazz Cafe. Celebrity can speak for itself in this kind of scenario. Like I say, he’s an important one.

What about music and storytelling today?

‘The storytelling is in the sound of a horn, instrumentalists tell stories in the same way that resonates the way that lyrics do, for me. Storytelling is still a force out there in the sound, and because we’re in that streaming age aswell, young folk are able to pick and choose what they want to go to and hear. The feeling I get from being quite active on social media is that a lot of people are being really particular about what they’re engaging with and finding it, because there are lots of things going on in the jazz world. A lot more difficult than 20 years ago, having to go and stand outside the store...'

What about jazz in the UK now?

‘It’s doing really great. There's a whole generation of new players. There’s an interesting kind of British sound, I think its always been there, but its more out there in terms of being recognised outside of the UK. Especially for the young black artists. We’re still unseen outside of the UK, but its changing. To the lot of the world we... we might be a small minority in the country, but its changing. I say that but I know that artists, i know that if I’m performing in other parts of the world, the first thing that people say is what part of America are you from?'

People like Harry Beckett, Joel Harriott, Courtney Pine, Dean Williamson, Shabaka Hutchings, Moses Boyd - its the sum of all those parts thats causing more of a ricochet today, which it should.

It should be doing that, its how it should be moving. People should know that we’re here and we have a sound that’s been developing for decades.'

I recently went to the Friday at Field Day 2018, which hosted some of the best talent that our contemporary jazz scene has to offer. I confess, Moses Boyd’s set actually reduced me to tears. It struck me that there is something very exciting happening in music at the moment, and we should listen, as new talent have listened to their idols who have come before.