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A thousand silos aimed at what? May 29, 2011

Posted by The Typist in Jazz, literature, music, New Orleans, NOLA, Poetry, Toulouse Street.
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Gil Scott-Heron died the other day.

I had been thinking of him lately, partly born out of a conversation I had during Jazz Fest. I spent most those two weekends sitting on my stoop on one of the plastic chairs I set out front, watching the crowds pass in and out the Sauvage Street gate, seeing who would pick up a sheet or three from the Free Jazz Poetry box I had placed atop of five gallon bucket on Fortin Street. Any number of people stopped by and asked if they could sit for a minute, and I always said yes.

One afternoon a young black man who had been handing out Where Y’at asked to sit.He had come by earlier and picked up a sheaf of the poems I had printed up and laid out, not true jazz poems in the technical sense but poems written about musicians I admire. He still had the poems in his hands when he sat down. I asked him about handing out newspapers, if he was getting a free ticket to Jazz Fest like the hawkers of free copies of Off Beat. No, he was just getting paid to do it.

I’m also a poet, he said after we sat silently for a bit, smoking. I asked him where he read or performed. He wasn’t doing much of that here in New Orleans, he said. He wasn’t a New York style slam performer. He preferred the words, and apparently NOLA is all about the performance. And everywhere is a clique in spoken word circles, he said. I told him the mostly white mainstream poetry scene was pretty much the same. Uptown at the Leaf, downtown at the Goldmine, the universities: everywhere people were huddled in their little groups and only a few people regularly crossed those lines. Even outside of poetry, there are groups of writers clustered together who rarely talk to each other. We’re all in our little silos.

I told him I had been looking into checking out some of the spoken word events, even though I can’t hold anything in memory long enough to ever get up to the mike, and I’m certainly no performer. A handful of Black poets come to traditional poetry readings, but almost no one from my world ventures into the spoken word circle. I told him about visiting a spoken word event when I was in D.C. on business, at the historic Cavern night club on U Street, the only white person there, sitting alone against the wall sipping whiskey. They asked me when I came in if I was going to read, but I never did. I sat there soaking up the beautiful words and thinking about the people who occasionally visit the Goldmine or the Maple Leaf, wondering if they felt as alien as I did that night.

Artists like Gil Scott-Heron and Sun Ra (also much on my mind of late) spoke from a Black experience but did not intend their art to be only for people just like them. Sun Ra is often pigeon holed in the Afro-futurist movement he is credited with creating, is often thought to be Afrocentic in the exclusionary sense of the the men selling The Final Call who will not meet your eye. But Sun Ran himself spoke in his poetry of “niggers of all colors” and in the opening of his flim Space is the Place he first speaks of bringing the Black people of Earth to a new planet of their own, but quickly suggests that they bring the whole planet to a new world to start over.

Gil Scott-Heron certainly spoke from his Black experience but not all of his work is Afrocentric. Pieces like We Beg Your Pardon (about the Nixon pardon) and Winter in America spoke for all Americans, to all Americans who were ready to listen. He collaborated with rap and hip hop artists but declined the title of father of rap, saying he preferred Jazz. In spite of works like Whitey on the Moon there is not feeling he fell into the seperatist trap. Heron and Ra understood the universal power of music, to speak to all people, to get people to listen, to make a transformation in the world.

Here in 21st Century New Orleans writers divide themselves up by race, by ward, by style, by where’d-you-go-to-school, just like everyone else. I sat around with a dozen people who would seem to understand the power of words during the visit of New York writer Eileen Miles and who told jokes about why there are no Republican poets: they’re all speech writers. The laughter was uneasy. We understand the power of words but don’t do enough to use them as a weapon or a spell to change the world, leaving that to others. We sit in our comfortable groups and read to or perform for each other each in our chosen denomination of the church of the word, never thinking to step over the threshold into another experience. We think ourselves wiser, more hip but are we that much better off than everyone else living in the speed-dial, cable-package, friends list silos the masters have wrought to keep us penned like factory farm animals?

The young poet was trained as a journalist and had worked in that field out west, but everywhere in New Orleans he found door closed against him. One publisher went so far as to tell him they already had their black writer. I went into the house and pulled out my copy of Atlantis Now, a new magazine of culture and arts in the city founding young Black men at UNO. Given them a try, I suggested, and he said he would.

We already have our Black writer? Really? I wish I had asked him who that was. Even as our corporate fathers realign my job to another state and I was thinking of trying to make a go of free-lancing and to out that person would seriously fuck up my own prospects I would gladly call them out. One thing we learn from the great artists is the need to be fearless. For a long time on my blog and emails I had a signature taken from a poem by Audre Lorde: “and when we speak we are afraid/our words will not be heard/nor welcomed/but when we are silent/we are still afraid/So it/is better to speak/remembering/we were never meant to survive.” I watched the PBS special on the Freedom Riders two weeks ago and can’t shake the idea of twenty-year olds making their last will and testament then boarding the buses. Where are those people now?

So much that troubled Henry Blount in his youth in the 40s and 50s and gave birth to the persona Sun Ra, all the issues that fueled Scott-Heron’s work in the 60s and 70s are still with us, issues of class and race compounded in New Orleans by our rigid system of caste and ward, where the universal question of a stranger “where’d you go to school” is a password challenge: are you one of us? This is particularly sad in New Orleans, the place where the uniquely African-American forms of jazz and R&B that are the basis of America’s mainstream culture we all embrace were born. And a city given the same clean slate as Noah, a city where for one bright shining moment we were not Black or white, Uptown or Downtown, Catholic or Baptist but all children of the flood, a chance at transformation that we promptly squandered.

I know Scott-Heron’s music but haven’t read much about his thoughts of the world he just left, a world still under the seventh-generation curse of slavery. I wonder if art can really transform the world. If we don’t open our hearts and really listen it it can just be emotional heroin, a withdrawal into the soothing numbness of familiarity and our fractional identities, a habit hard to break. Yes the world has changed. We have a Black president presiding over the antiquated atomic silos that dot the Dakotas but our worries today are not The Bomb. Our worry is the silos we have built for ourselves that make the new Vietnams of the east possible, that leave us paralyzed to act as the right froths over Obama with the same vitriol as Alabamians meeting the Freedom Riders, in cities rings\ed with a wall of big box malls while the center withers in apathy, a world where Whitey’s On The Moon still resonates as the last space shuttles fly over a planet full of hunger and pain.

And now it’s winter
It’s winter in America
And all of the healers have been killed
Or been betrayed
Yeah, but the people know, people know
It’s winter, Lord knows
It’s winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting
Cause nobody knows what to save
Save your souls
From Winter in America

— Gil Scott-Heron

N.B. — Read the comment just below the video.


1. Marco - May 29, 2011

Bingo! We are still in separate silos insulated by the ennui and apathy that seems to be a like cancer that refuses to yield to any attempt to let in light.


2. Marco - May 29, 2011

Forgot to give credit to ole Leibniz’s monads for my silo prejudice


3. Paul Benton - May 30, 2011

im not sure what people really care about these days. they have two or three wars the country is fighting and no one has a real job and they dont want gas to be 5 dollars a gallon. they dont want gas to be five dollars a gallon. well – burn your car and get a bike and just say fuck it. because things are not going to get any better.


4. Angelo - May 30, 2011

Thanks for recognizing “Winter In America.” Everyone is stuck on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” –which isn’t true anyway; the Revolution in Cairo was quite televised, and Twittered, and Facebooked. Few people seem to recognize Gil Scott Heron’s talents as a soul singer and songwriter. As an added bonus: he was the first player on the Celtic Football Club, and that’s just cool as ice.


Mark Folse - May 30, 2011

I’ve been listening to Pieces of a Man and no, he doesn’t get credit for making poetry accessible through beautiful music. I’ve never given much thought to the chronology of Scott-Heron’s recordings and Marvan Gaye’s What’s Going On, another great, soulful political record (wonderfully re-recorded by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band a few years ago).


5. Angelo - May 30, 2011

Er, correction: first black player on Celtic FC…


6. Mark Folse - May 30, 2011

Interesting: What’s Going On and Scott-Heron’s recording career were contemporaneous. I wonder how much bigger Scott-Heron might have been if a Motown star like Gaye had not released his politically-conscious album at the same time as the start of Scott-Heron’s career, if the latter would not have been bigger.


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