Back in the 1980s when US President Ronald Reagan’s TV appeal was comfort blanket for other political atrocities, poet, author and musician Gil Scott Heron stood tall. Pushing back against the, now, overfamiliar tidal wave of power-gone-mad, Gil weaponised both his songs and spoken words with a deadly counter-narrative. And in employing both wit and charm, Gil’s acerbic commentary captured both the zeitgeist and the minds of generations to come.
… Armed with insights that even now pierce the past and puncture the present, the most devasting weapon Gil had was his turn of phrase.
Part live concert, part Gil wandering around Washington armed with a ghetto blaster, director Robert Mugge‘s music documentary Black Wax paradoxically has as much to say about now as it did then. An arch ghetto blaster himself, Gil had been lambasting the white establishment ever since his seminal 1970 debut Small Talk at 125th and Lenox LP. Steeped in caustic, intellectual insight, the seeds of Gil’s ire would regularly find their way into song and many of his favourites can be found within in Black Wax’s performance sections.
Although for me, as a life-long fan who managed to see him live twice, once in 1992 as part of the Amnesia Express and later in 2011 at Brixton Academy, it’s the movie’s spoken word pieces that carry the most weight. Chronicling both his childhood and his arrival in New York, Gil was always a man searching for the blues. Charmingly retold, that in now New York, the blues would find him, Gil was always trying to get his point across in the clearest possible fashion. Armed with insights that even now pierce the past and puncture the present, the most devasting weapon Gil had was his turn of phrase. So whilst Black Wax finds him wandering laidback through Washington DC, there’s a purpose to his gait and that is to deliver insight.
With tracks like “Gun” and “The Watergate Blues” hauntingly echoing the events of the storming of the US Capitol and Joe Biden’s Inauguration, the most solemn indictment here is his track ‘Winter In America.” A funereal jazz piece that laments where America now finds itself, this Gil’s clearest shot across the bows of the future and even now it still scores a direct hit. So, whether or not Gil wished it so, both his music and message has gone one to take a unique place in hip-hop’s evolution and elevating the spoken word into song.
With Gil’s ability to lace political dissent over infectious grooves, Black Wax closes one of his most overt tracks in “B-Movie”. Taking you back to a time “when fair was square” and “heroes weren’t zero’s”, it’s cushioning opening hits you with a killer refrain by its close – “This ain’t really your life. Ain’t really your life, ain’t really your life. It ain’t nothing but a movie”.
…And as such, Black Wax isn’t a movie. It’s a potent distillation of a man in his prime whose mind was both clear and present and all too aware of the danger that lies ahead.