Laura Kiely looks at one of mankind’s most colossal achievements through the wise eyes of Gil Scott-Heron.
There is something about Gil Scott-Heron that truly garners the essence of ‘Godfather.’ He is often credited as the most influential figure in the early genesis of rap music, although he referred to himself as a ‘bluesologist’, due to his blues, jazz and Harlem Renaissance-influenced music and poetics. Scott-Heron possessed the kind of wit that made humour indispensable to genius and his social commentary was escorted by that mordant essence which came to characterise his oeuvre as a whole. He wasn’t just a musician, but a political orator without the suit and tie, who converted affirmations through the then-new vehicle of spoken word music.
Scott-Heron possessed the kind of wit that made humour indispensable to genius and his social commentary was escorted by that mordant essence which came to characterise his oeuvre as a whole.
Born in 1949 in Chicago, Scott-Heron moved from his hometown to Jacksonville, Tennessee with his grandmother, Lille Scott at a young age after his parents’ divorce. His grandmother was a musician and civil rights activist whom Scott-Heron had described as “absolutely not your mail-order, room service, typecast black grandmother.” She bought him his first piano and introduced him to Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes, an indelible introduction to the music and culture that would provide the framework for his future musical style. In Tennessee, he was one of three Black students chosen to desegregate a white middle school, but due to the racially charged abuse he faced daily, he returned back to his mother in the Bronx, New York. There he witnessed the abject poverty of African Americans, a milieu fit for catapulting anyone into the real world: “Stuff them all in a Harlem House, and then tell them how bad things are down South” (“Paint It Black,” 1971). While moving up North may have been the path to fleeing pure, unadulterated racism, he could not escape the systemic displacement of black Americans, which led to his 1970 hit “Whitey on the Moon.”
“Whitey on the Moon” relays the narrative of an impoverished Black American during a time of high taxes and inflation to support the Apollo missions. Contrasting the lyrics, a bongo drum beat saturates the song with the wise guy on the corner type trope. Owing to this conflation of rhythmic drums and social commentary, the affinity of the lyrical and musical echoes throughout: “A rat done bit my sister Nell / (with Whitey on the moon) / Her face and arms began to swell / (and Whiteys on the moon) / I can’t pay no doctor bill / (but Whiteys on the moon) / Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still / (while Whiteys on the moon).”
The juxtaposition of maladies and unpaid doctor bills with men on the moon serves to illuminate the colossal compromise of working-class Americans for the pedestal of people in power aiming to beat the Soviets during the Space Race. The lyrics contend for recognition of the social and economic despair over the media coverage the 1969 moon landing garnered. Scott-Heron didn’t make allusions to the disparate distributions of wealth, but persistently called out the unwavering negligence enacted by the government.
Scott-Heron didn’t make allusions to the disparate distributions of wealth, but persistently called out the unwavering negligence enacted by the government.
President John F. Kennedy made his 1962 speech where he chanted “We choose to go to the moon” three times. The focus on choice may come across as hypocritical with its echoing of the Declaration of Independence; a proclamation of liberty, equality and self-governance. However, whose choice was it to raise income tax by 10% to finance these colossal endeavours? Between 1960 and 1973, the US accumulated their government spending at $25.8 billion (calculated at $257 billion adjusted for inflation in 2020).
While it may appear repetitive to continue disputing over ruddy-cheeked ‘powerful’ men in expensive suits who are never affected by the raising of taxes and how the lower classes who always take the heat. Nonetheless, this repetition stems from the material conditions perpetuated by universal wealth and power hoarding, and this is why Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey is still on the moon. Today, billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Richard Bronzon are flying to space purely out of self-interest. Jeff Bezos is on track to becoming the world’s first trillionaire; as long as he can continue relying on warehouses, only comparable to sweatshops. Bezos is infamous for making “ordinary control freaks seem like stoned hippies” and an article published by The New York Times Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace showcases an intimate exposé of the Amazonian bureau with its highly comprehensive surveillance system on all employees and anti-unionist consultants.
According to Forbes, Jeff Bezos’ “fulfilment centres” are the epitome of dystopia. The discourse surrounding NASA, the space industry and space at large, frequently emphasises the idea that space is above Earthly concerns. With a net worth of $150 billion (according to Forbes, October 2023), his “fulfilment centres” epitomise the definition of dystopia. Sociologist Lisa Wade calls this phase, ‘The New Gilded Age,’ where we have cyclically returned to concentrated wealth hoarding, where a tiny percentage of the elite possess cosmic amounts of capital and resources. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, and the government came up with an inaccurate method to calculate the country's poverty rates, where the threshold for denoting poverty lines was extremely fine rendering many poor families, essentially not impoverished, and therefore unable to obtain sufficient resources. They still use this method today.
In 2022, Black people made up only 13.5% of the total population of America but made up 20.1% of the population in poverty. This results in a disparaging ratio of 1.5, meaning the Black population was overrepresented in poverty. The compromised allocation of resources continues today as was accurately depicted in Scott-Heron’s music.
When Scott-Heron mocked, “I think I’ll send these doctor bills, Airmail special (to Whitey on the moon).” This resonated with black Americans during a time of absurd realities, and unfortunately, still does today. His music confronted uncomfortable truths about people’s place in a society where your maladies down on Earth were, quite literally, reduced to a microcosmic scale. But these maladies experienced by Black Americans were articulated for the masses by one man, Scott-Heron transcended the medium of spoken word into music and utilised his platform to catalyse change and impact social consciousness. His music allowed for a good time while still representing a voice for impoverished Black urban communities. He was one of the first musical activists and provided a real baseline for the rap and hip-hop movements dominating the music industry today.