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Exit Stage Left: Gil Scott-Heron.

We often underestimate the influence that poetry has had on American culture. With Gil Scott-Heron’s passing it is an opportunity to be cognizant of the influence that poetry has had on the American culture during the later half of the 20th century.

Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the Beat Poets began to blur the lines between poetry and music in the 50’s. The Beat generation set the stage for those to come later including Gil Scott-Heron, the Last Poets, Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, et al. The cause and effect of poetic and musical influences is an interesting trail to follow.

The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will be live.

-Gil Scott-Heron

Much attention is paid to popular artists such as Kanye West, Dr. Dre, or Eminem proclaiming their influence by Gil Scott-Heron. But I find that the “true” contemporaries of Gil Scott-Heron are artists like the Dead Prez, Lupe Fiasco, Michael Franti, et al.α whose work holds truer to the poetry and sharp commentary on American culture and politics that Gil Scott-Heron provided.

What all these artists have in common is that even without music their words are powerful enough to stand on their own. The six degrees of separation of musical influence between each generation of artist is most poignant from Michael Franti and Rono Tse with the selection of their band name Beatnigs. Within their work you can see the arc of influence from the Beat generation, rap, hip-hop, rock, punk, to industrial musicβ. In my opinion it is those artists within any of these genres whose work can be considered poetry that I consider to be true masters of their craft, and maybe even more so for those poets that are conscience of the arc of influences and are adept enough as artists to bend/blend each genre of music.

So as we mourn the loss of a great American poet there will be many tributes to Gil Scott-Heron’s work but I think it’s just as important to think about his legacy in terms of the contemporaries he influenced as a testament to his impact on American culture.  Let’s not forget to pay homage to poetry as a powerful art form that does not get as much main stream attention as it deservesγ.

Television: The Drug of the Nation
The Beatnigs
(remixed by Adrian Sherwood, Gary Clail, and Mark Stewart)

Hip Hop
Dead Prez
Let’s Get Free

American Terrorist
Lupe Fiascoδ
Food & Liquor

I thought I would end on a video that brings together Gil Scott-Heron with Chris Cunningham’s haunting industrial/gothic audio and visual remix of New York is Killing Me. This video brings the arc of influence back full circle from beat poets to industrial music and is a fitting bookend to Gil Scott-Heron’s body of work.


  1. Obviously there are many significant artists that I could list, I only listed those that come most strikingly to mind for me personally.

  2. The arc of influence I speak of is tied to a personal music history. There are many takes on musical influences in the 20th century and you can check out some examples here, here, and here. I am not intending to be academically accurate, what I am asserting is a personal accuracy to the chain of influences.

  3. I left out any discussion around around the Poetry Slam movement. This is as relevant as the music genres I mention.  The very definition of poetry is worth questioning. I highly recommend you buy this book The Spoken Word Revolution.

  4. Lupe Fiasco is a good example of an artist who is very conscience of the arc of influences much like Michael Franti, check out Lupe’s work with Japanese Cartoon.