March 21, 2014
Influences is a new feature series in which we ask a contemporary recording artist to discuss a particularly influential or inspirational figure from the world of music. Trinidad-born spoken word vocalist Anthony Joseph talks up the inimitable Gil Scott-Heron.
It’s only as we descend from Anthony Joseph’s apartment on the top floor of an impressive trust housing project in South London that the singer reveals he was once asked to stand in for Gil Scott-Heron at a music festival, after Gil, in the final months of his life, had failed to show. It would have been quite an act to follow, but having mentioned earlier the regularity with which reviewers find parallels between their work, Joseph may be one of a small number of artists around who could have possibly filled in. “So few people that have successfully managed to merge music and the spoken word” muses Joseph, “there are very few to compare us too”.
Born in Trinidad and schooled on a combination of his grandfather’s calypso records and the reggae 7″s fresh off the boat from Jamaica, Joseph’s discovery of the work of Gil Scott-Heron coincided with his move to London at the end of the 80’s, a bombastic culture shock which opened the young poet’s eyes to a world of music and literature only hinted at in the American magazines he’d pick up back home.
Since then he has published five collections of poetry and recorded five albums, most recently with the legendary Meshell Ndegeocello helming the production. Time, released on the fantastic Parisian label Heavenly Sweetness this spring, is perhaps Joseph’s most complete and realised statement to date, a record that seamlessly combines poetic lyricism with melody in a way that can’t help but invite comparison to Scott-Heron’s work. There’s an inevitability about the regularity with which we return to talk about Time.
Up in his warm living room overlooking a drab February morning in South London, Joseph speaks evocatively, as only a poet can, about his life and career as influenced by the most popular and enduring spoken word vocalist and musician of his generation, pulling out classic LPs like Free Will, Winter In America and Pieces Of A Man from the wall of records that dominates the room. It’s a convivial and stimulating environment, a tutorial of sorts with a musician who considers his art with an astuteness that betrays his vocation as a university lecturer. Every so often he rises to flip the record which plays on an old turntable opposite, or acknowledge the black cat, which purrs at his feet.
Where did you first come across Gil Scott-Heron?
I grew up in Trinidad and his name would come up from time to time, sometimes in magazines I’d get from the US like Rolling Stone or whatever. I didn’t really know his music in Trinidad, but then when I came to England and going into HMV for the first time and being bombarded with all this music that I’d heard about but never heard, he was one of them. I got this double cassette thing, which was like an anthology and that was the first time I really got into it and that was 1989.
In terms of going out and buying records in general, were you already into that in Trinidad?
Yeah I was, I started buying records when I was 12 or 13. It was mainly reggae that I was buying at that time. We used to get 7” fresh pressings from Jamaica that would come across so I used to buy a lot of that. I used to buy a lot of soul records, and also where I was growing up with my grandparents, for some reason they had a lot of records and I was just really fascinated by the smell of them, the physical thing about records.
Many people talk about their first steps in music as directed by what their parents or grandparents had at home.
We had a lot of calypso records, a lot of Mighty Sparrow records and stuff like that, which my grandfather would play once a year at Christmas time. He’d bring the records out and we’d listen to them.
That does sound nice. Back in the UK then, you went into HMV and were confronted with all this music and you pick out Gil Scott-Heron…
Yeah, because I’d heard the name and I’d read about him. Because I was a poet, I was writing as well and here’s this guy who was doing poetry and music, so I thought let me get into it and I did straight away. It was a very immediate connection.
Was that connection with the lyrics and the content or more with the melodies of the songs themselves?
For me it was the voice. It was his voice that captured me. There was a humanity and a vulnerability in the voice and at that time, the stuff I was listening to was more the songs than the poems. There were a few of the poems on that compilation, things like ‘Whitey on the Moon’ and ‘Brother’, but they were really short, so for me the heart of it was the songs. And then there were ones which combined the songs and the poetry like ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’. It was cool, but the voice was the thing for me. And I got pretty deep into that first compilation. I analysed it for a long time, to try and figure out what he was doing.
From a musical point of view?
Yeah and from a lyrical point of view. And at that time in the early 90’s, I was writing but I was more focused on making music myself, and the music I was making was really different to what I’m doing now, it was rock music essentially. I had a black rock band. This was the time of Living Colour and Bad Brains, so kind of heavy stuff.
Where lyrics might take a back seat?
Yeah maybe, but for me, because I was a poet, the main thing about the music was the lyrics, so the lyrics were always a really important part of what we were doing. It was a combination of really hard aggressive music (not always, but sometimes) and really sort of refined, crafted poetry.
In terms of that balance between writing a song or a melody and writing a poem… In pop music especially, often the lyrics feel secondary to a powerful hook – they’re there almost just to facilitate the more visceral aspects of the song. With Gil, and with your own work, there has to be a fine distinction, since you don’t just want the song to be a vehicle for the poem. How do you begin to balance the two? Do you start with the poem first?
Yeah, the poem comes first. The poem dictates what the music does. I think that’s what happened with the new album, the poetry dictated to Meshell [Ndegeocello] what mood and what feel and what music she was going to put to the words, which I think is the best way to work.
And I suppose Gil had Brian Jackson to take care of a lot of the musical side of things…
Yeah, but Gil was also a piano player so I think a lot of musicality came from that. I was just reading about that, he was saying that’s where it came from, the fact that he could play the piano meant that he could construct melodies around his poems.
Gil had a very political strain to his music. Raising issue with the injustices and inequalities of his day was something that he found very important. Was this content something that spoke to you too?
Absolutely, of course, but I thought it was very much of the time. If you listen to the Last Poets and even Watts Prophets they seem to talk about things in a more universal way. You know the stuff they were talking about racism and racial injustice and stuff like that. But Gil, I found that he made it personal. He made the politics personal and he used himself and his own experience as the fulcrum around which all these things revolved. You listen to ‘The Bottle’ or ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’, they’re very political but also very personal. I think that was his gift.
There is also something very universal about his personal experience that transcends all this. Politically and emotionally…
Absolutely. Yeah I think all the great stuff from that period should be still relevant. I think that’s what all art tries to do, to remain relevant. But I think there’s a quality and a need to ground things in a particular time and I think Gil did that particular well with ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. That’s very much of its time and it was important to have that at the time, and now, maybe it’s not so relevant and maybe a lot of the references are not there, but the sentiment is still valid.
Listening to Time, I also feel like your themes are very personal, very family and community orientated. Are these references based on your own experience?
Yeah, absolutely. Something like ‘Hustle To Live’, where I talk about the plight of the immigrant who comes to London and works really hard and saves money to go back home. I see guys like that on the street, I’m sure you do too, selling phone cards. When you speak to them you find out that they don’t want to stay here, they want to work and earn a lot of money and then go. The guy on the corner of the street in the shop that does photos, he’s the guy when I’m talking when I say “On the south side of the city, he’s on the grind, working from nine to nine, making prints in the picture shop”.
On the other albums I was really tied up in a personal journey I think, trying to understand how I related to the world and how memory worked and how language worked. It was very cryptic a lot of it, but I think with this album there was an attempt to start looking out to the community.
Actually, Frantz Fanon has got an essay in Wretched of the Earth where he talks about the stages that a native artist goes through – a colonized person – as an artist. I’m not quite a colonized person any more but it still applies to me. He says, when you begin to work, you try to show how great a craftsman you are, you try and show the master that you have mastered his tools, that “I can write poetry just as good as you, and I can even do it better”. And the second stage, you try to go back to your past and remember who you were and you write about your childhood and your family, and in the third stage you rejoin the revolution and you’re present with the people, fighting against something. And I think I’m on the edge of that phase going from the remembrance of the past into a more politically aware and politically active way of looking at the world and just noticing the shit that’s going on.
Of course, with so much going on out there it is the personal stuff which ultimately really connects with people.
Yeah of course, the personal is the universal. I teach and this is what I tell my students all the time. The things that you want to hide, the things you think are too personal, that’s the stuff that’s going to make great poetry. You can’t get too personal in art. The irony is that when you try and appeal to the masses, you contrive shit, you come up with stuff with no substance, because you’re writing what you think people want to hear. Start with yourself. As Gil says, Home is Where The Hatred Is.
Do you want to talk us through one of your favourite Gil Scott-Heron records and tell us why…
I think this is probably my favourite, Winter In America. This is for me, one of the greatest ones he’s done, because this has ‘The Bottle’ of course, but also some really beautiful ballads, ‘Rivers of my Fathers’, ‘A Very Precious Time’, that whole first side I just like one gentle suite. ‘Peace Go With You Brother’, ‘Your Daddy Loves You’ which I think is one of the sweetest thing that he did. I love the poetry, but I love the ballads maybe slightly more.
With that in mind, Gil is often credited in shorthand by journalists for his influence on hip hop, but that wasn’t really a concern of his was it?
Journalists have column inches to fill, so they have to use shorthand, but Gil himself tried to distance himself from that whole Godfather of Rap thing, because as he said, there were people before him. There was Amiri Baraka, The Last Poets, Oscar Brown Jr. and a whole range of artists before that were doing spoken word, back to the 50’s.
I think when he came around, it was about timing. He came at a particular time when James Brown was also doing this sort of proto rap thing, there was the Last Poets and this feeling of protest and the voice being heard, so he got caught up in that. His work is very different from the Last Poets and the militant black rhetoric of the time, because his work, as we said, is very personal, very tender and vulnerable at times.
I think it’s very important to have that balance. I think that’s why Gil was so successful and why we love him so much and why we still talk about him, because he showed us his pain. I think that balance is important and I think that’s what I take from him a lot. That’s what I take, the ability to be open.