I was 9 or 10 and a 5th grader at a very revolutionary school in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. It was a Friday evening, I believe, and I was staying over my best friend and classmate Ketema’s house, as I often did back in them days, over on Herkimer Street in brooklyn. His father told the two of us to get our stuff together cause he was taking us to the city, meaning Manhattan. There was a concert being held at Columbia University and I remember feeling so excited because the man who was going to be performing that night, Ketema’s father informed us, was none other than the great Gil Scott Heron.
At the time, his hit song (at least in my neck of the ‘hood), called “The Bottle,” was on everyone’s lips.
But, for some reason, and I can’t recall what it was, when we arrived at Columbia he informed us that we, meaning Ketema and I, would not be going inside.
That’s some cold shit, I thought.
He told us to stay out front and sell copies of Black News to people arriving for the show. This was a common practice, this selling of the newspaper, and at times was actually quite profitable. We’d get a commission on sales, not to mention whatever we could skim off the top with our little schemes, so I was kinda OK with it. Kinda. I mean, it was Gil-Scott Heron fr’chrissakes.
He grabbed a bundle of the papers bound with string out of the trunk, plopped it down before us, then gathered up his photography stuff (he was always taking pictures) and off he went, leaving the two of us behind.
So we stood out there on the outskirts of Harlem accosting concertgoers with, “would you like to buy the latest issue of Black News?” and lamenting that we couldn’t pull one of our favorite little profitable schemes which was to, in addition to selling the current edition, sell back issues of Black News. We had secured them because otherwise they’d usually be destroyed. And customers rarely checked to see that the date on their issue was the most current. Most were first-time customers so any issue was news to them. So we’d make a profit to splurge on pizza, pinball, skeeball, baseball cards and Boston baked beans, and nobody got hurt. But since his father hadn’t told us in advance that we would be on paper peddling duty that night we were stuck selling the latest issue, of which we knew all sales would be vigorously accounted for.
After a half hour or so, it was the start time for the concert and the number of arrivals dwindled down to none, so we just stood around listlessly waiting for his father to re-emerge.
I think I was the one who started singing…
“See that black boy over there, runnin’ scared, his old man’s in the bottle…
He done quit his nine to five, drinks full-time, now he’s living in the bottle…”
And then Ketema took over, “See that black boy over there running scared, his old man’s got a problem…”
And then we both fell out laughing, the way we always did at that part of the song.
“I don’t hear any music or clapping or anything.”
Ketema was right…the streets were dead quiet. It was a chilly night, wintry, but we were dressed warmly, parkas, hats and gloves and all. We stood on the corner, under a street light, looking at the front door of the auditorium.
Then, suddenly there was clapping, rhythmic, not like applause but like a cadence, like soldiers marching with their hands. The kind of clapping an anxious audience makes that insists upon your joining in whether you want to clap or not. I’d hear that kind of clapping from time to time at my school. On those nights when it would transform into an after hours speakeasy type club and the show didn’t start on time for any number of reasons, technical difficulties usually.
“I wanna go inside and see him!” Ketema cried, voicing both of our desires. “Got us standing on the corner like winos…”
He started staggering and slurring like we’d see winos back in Brooklyn do all too often. Ketema was a talented cat, had the wino moves down to a T.
“…look around on any corner,” I sang , trying not to laugh. “If you see some Brother looking like a goner…”
“…It’s gonna be meeeeeeee!”
And we cracked up, again
Just then I saw a shadow coming up the street a few feet away. I tapped Ketema. He turned and straightened up, alert. The silhouette projected by the street light had a helluvah natural, Afro blown out like Angela Davis’. So, I relaxed. Real trouble never wore Afros.
…nor a dashiki! Looked like one of our teachers, or even Ketema’s father.
And then, there he was! Gil Scott Heron, in the flesh!
I knew his face from the album covers and show posters. He had been in Jet magazine, and Ebony, too. And there he was, just walking up the street like a regular person…looking right at Ketema and I.
He stopped before us, and said, “hey little brothers!”
We both said, “hey!”
“Y’all sounded good! Better than me!” and he laughed, big crooked white teeth springing from chapped lips partially hidden behind a rich, thick black mustache and beard. “What’s that you got there?”
I handed him one.
He looked at the cover art and nodded his head, clearly impressed by Brother Seitu’s (the school’s artist) artwork. He flipped through a few pages.
“This is dynamite!” he said, looking up at us with a gleam of profound hope in his eyes. “Can I get a copy?”
“Sure,” I said, then remembered. “Errr, but they’re a quarter.”
He pulled out a buck and handed it to me.
The clapping grew louder, only now it was amplified and intensified by stomping.
“Y’all be careful out here! I gotta get inside, sounds like a revolution’s underway!” and he winked at us and flashed a black power fist. “Stay strong, little brothers! And thanks for the news!”
He turned and began to walk away, saying “Keep the change,” over his shoulder.
Then he abruptly stopped and wheeled around on us, looking mad as a junkie with no junk.
“…but don’t buy no wine with that!” he snapped, pointing at us, and held the rage for about a second longer before he laughed again so warmly I felt like I’d known him for years.
We stood there, still a bit stunned, as he just strutted away towards the auditorium entrance.
He was the first celebrity I’d ever met.
Ketema and I looked at each other, lit up, glowing and grinning. It was just for a moment, but it was a moment.
Then Ketema looked at the buck still in my hand.
“You got nine cents?” he asked.
“Huh?” I had a buck in my hand, and he’s asking me for nine cents??
“A dollar-nine get a bottle of wine, a dollar-nine get a bottle of wine, a dollar-nine get a bottle of wine, a dollar-nine get a bottle of wine…” Ketema sang.
And we both fell out laughing and singing on the corner like winos.
It’s difficult to label an artist like Gil Scott Heron. He didn’t fit nicely into any genre. But personally, I like to think of him as a poet. He was in fact, the first poet to prove to me without a doubt that poetry was cool!
Naturally, after meeting him, I wanted to be just like him.
I wanted to be that guy that people sat in crowded halls waiting for, clapped and stomped for, while he stood outside reading an article from a newspaper a couple of kids were selling on the corner, admonishing them to stay on the straight and narrow.
I wanted to be that poet able to capture the everyday and make it the stuff of timeless epics, that takes words that were otherwise ordinary, twists, molds and shapes them into ideas so accessible yet profound that people can hardly fathom how he manages to do it. Like taking the items found in the pantry of a family struggling to survive — half of which are bulk foodstuffs distributed by church charities and the government, the rest purchased with food stamps supplied by social services — and whips up a dish so delectable you hardly want to touch it for fear it might disappear.
That’s what I wanted to do. At ten years old, after hardly two minutes in the man’s company, I wanted to do what he did.
It was around that time I started writing poetry.
I can’t remember any of it. Only the intense desire to take words and make something people loved to read or listen to, the way I loved listening to Gil Scott recite: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised:
My school’s mission was to prepare us children for a revolution…or so our alma mater went.
To be honest, I didn’t fully understand what revolution they were talking about, not until people like Gil Scott started filling in the holes in my comprehension. I didn’t know what my teachers had been doing to me, at 10-years-old, the three years I’d been at their disposal. I didn’t know that they had simply been nurturing my mind into the kind that could listen to the poetry emanating from a soul like Gil Scott’s and grasp what went into it. They had been refining my tastes so that I could glimpse the poem’s recipe, taste its anguish on the tip of my own tongue, be sensitive to its bitter longing in my own maturing heart, discern its frustration and its fear, to perceive his efforts to harness all of this anger and dread with his art and the heart that informs it.
Sometimes I’d cry when I listened to Gil Scott, but could never quite understand why. I felt scared, afraid of this world he revealed. No, actually I was afraid to be me in this world! A little black boy, runnin’ scared, in the crosshairs of something from which there actually was no escape, something that could take any form, even people you know and trust. Your life expectancy depended entirely on its aim, its whim. Every goddamn day you, and everybody you know, are a coin toss away from casualty.
But, now, as a grown man, I get it…and I don’t cry anymore when I hear his work. I still get filled with that tragic joy that is the comedy of life, but nowadays I laugh a lot more, like Ketema and I did when we used to listen to and sing his music as kids.
I laugh, and I clap my hands, and I stomp my feet. For I know that revolution is just another word for change. Revolution is part of the natural order of ALL things, great and small.
And to fear change is to fear life.
Thank you Mr Heron for sharing the complexity of your creativity with us, for making the heartrending effort to unleash your art, and showing and proving to me, by example, that there’s nothing wrong with being afraid as long as you don’t sit around waiting for shit to happen to you…because:
“The Revolution will be no rerun, the Revolution will be live!”
Big birthday shout out to my brother, Ketema. You will always live on in our hearts and minds!