BRATTLEBORO — Gil Scott-Heron may be the best-known musician and performer that you've never heard of.
Marcus Baram, who grew up in Guilford and has over 15 years of experience as editor and investigative journalist, hopes his recent biography of the man who has been called the "godfather of rap" will introduce new listeners to his music. Baram, who now lives in Brooklyn, still has family in Green River, a village in Guilford.
Scott-Heron, who died on May 27, 2011, at the age of 62, after returning from a trip to Europe, was a poet, musician, satirist, and visionary most active in the 1960s and 1970s. He pioneered a type of music that featured socially conscious lyrics, often about racism, politics, and commercialism, which were sung or spoken over hypnotic, repeating musical arrangements threaded through with his keyboard playing. He is especially identified with his spoken-word performance, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," which was included on his first album, "Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.
Baram discovered Scott-Heron's music as a student at Pomona College in California in 1986 and was impressed by the honest anger and sly humor of his songs, such as "The Bottle" and "Johannesburg." But he didn't hear Scott-Heron live until five years later.
"I was teaching in Harlem at the time," he said, "living in the East Village, and went to that first show in January 1991. It was Gil's annual Martin Luther King Day show — the Sunday before the holiday — that he did for years."
Scott-Heron, an African-American, had been part of the effort to have King's birthday declared a national holiday. In 1980 he was the opening act for Stevie Wonder's "Hotter Than July" tour. Wonder had written the song "Happy Birthday to Ya" in 1979 to inspire others to pressure Congress to pass the bill that had been introduced by John Conyers every year since King's assassination in 1968. Wonder addressed a rally of more than 100,000 people in Washington, D. C., on Jan. 15, 1981. Two years later, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the bill making the third Monday of January the official celebration of King's birthday, beginning in 1986.
Baram went to every one of Scott-Heron's MLK shows for at least the next six or seven years.
"They became a tradition, a ritual for me," Baram said. "It was like grooving at a nightclub, going to church, laughing at a comedy club, and attending a political rally all at the same time. Gil was so strong a presence, even though he was past his prime."
At these shows, Scott-Heron played old favorites, such as "the 13-minute extended version of 'The Bottle' with the 'Guan Guanco' rhythm," Baram said, "but Gil would always have new things to talk about and sometimes play an obscure song from one of his many albums."
Baram's biography of Scott-Heron is entitled "Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man," a reference to the title of his second album. Baram spent two years on the challenging project, interviewing nearly 200 people who had known or worked with Scott-Heron.
"In the beginning, the most difficult part was tracking some people down," Baram said. "It took me three months to find one relative living in Detroit. And I had to win the trust of the family and some of Gil's friends, to let them know that I wanted the full story, that I wouldn't just dwell on his later years."
Toward the end of his career, Scott-Heron had two convictions for cocaine possession and served time at Rikers Island for violating parole. He struggled for over a decade with an addiction to crack cocaine, which he called a life-style choice. He said that since he didn't use a needle, he wasn't an addict. Baram interviewed Scott-Heron in June 2008 for an article in New York Magazine.
The least challenging aspect of the biography project was finding on-line sources about Scott-Heron.
"It was easy to find and compile plenty of great interviews and concert reviews that have been written over the years, just through Google and some newspaper databases," Baram said, "as well as Gil's excellent memoir, 'The Last Holiday,' (published posthumously) which was indispensable."
Taking on a project of this magnitude changed Baram in numerous ways.
"Though I've been a journalist for two decades," he said, "I'd never written a piece longer than 3,000 words, and I learned through this process (of writing the book) how to shape a narrative that has to be sustained over hundreds of pages. It also gave me a renewed sense of the power of the written word — getting letters, comments on Facebook, and gratitude from readers who were moved by Gil's story.
"My own passion for his music and admiration for his artistic integrity and political message was only deepened through my immersion in the research for the book," he continued. "And, finally, it inspired me to be more true to my own passions as an artist and human being, to have the courage to speak out against injustice and follow my own path as a writer without following the herd. I want to pass on Gil's lesson that you can make a living as an artist by maintaining your integrity, without having to sell out and be a commercial success."