On April 2, US musician and songwriter Gil Scott-Heron was arrested for cocaine possession in Brisbane after flying in from London. On April 4 he pleaded guilty in the Brisbane Magistrate's Court and was fined $2000 for 2.3 grams of cocaine, $1500 for bringing more than $5000 into the country and $300 for pipes used for smoking marijuana. 4ZZZ reporter and HEMP [Help End Marijuana Prohibition] activist Tony Kneipp caught up with Scott-Heron at his hotel later that day for this exclusive interview.
Question: There's a constant commenting on the media-constructed reality and a big sense of irony about that, the use of lines from ads — "the revolution will put you in the driver's seat" — how do you see that?
Any time you're writing poetry, or prose for that matter, you're trying to place people in surroundings that are familiar to them, and there's very little more familiar than that constant flow of living in front of the television. So we use the familiar landmarks because of that focus, so that we can show that there's really not that much difference between a problem that you have in Australia or in Austria or Hungary and one that you have in Harlem.
Question: The problems don't seem to be going away in the USA, though. We certainly see a lot of tensions there — a great gap between the rich and poor, and certainly that applies to people of a black background, of a Latino background.
I think that you see the same sorts of problems here between the Aboriginal people and the folks that they call the newcomers. So I don't think that you have to look all the way to New York to find inequities.
Rather than concentrate on the complaints, we try to mention as many victories as we do defeats. The fact is that Jesse Jackson could run for president instead of running for his life. The fact is that we have people like Secretary Ron Brown. To see a brother who comes from New York as the secretary of commerce — this is a sign of improvement.
Question: You've been writing about Stevie Wonder and the push for a national holiday for Martin Luther King's birthday. How do you see the context of all that now — from Martin Luther King to Louis Farrakhan and the Million Man March?
I thought the Million Man March was a tremendous accomplishment. It shows that there are still people in our community who are concerned. There would be no Louis Farrakhan if there had been no Dr Martin Luther King. There would be no Jesse Jackson without Malcolm X. There would be no next step without the step that precedes it. When Pat Buchanan runs for president it's OK; when Louis Farrakhan runs somewhere else, it's not OK.
Question: So you think that Louis Farrakhan is contributing positively to the political debate in America?
I think he damn well is! I don't think that Pat Buchanan could get a Million Man March together. I doubt if Bill Clinton could get one. But Louis Farrakhan inspired people to do something that was heard about all over the world and it was a show of solidarity. There was not one arrest during that entire incident, and I don't think they could do that anywhere else.
Question: Gil, you just had an unfortunate episode here with an arrest for drugs.
What I was arrested for initially was for bringing in the pay for the rest of my band, and it was more currency than you're allowed. This led to their uncovering what I consider to be a personal amount of my own choosing.
Question: How do you feel about these laws?
I say that that's one of tha commitments that you make when you decide to live inside a society. You go along with the laws. I don't like all of them because some of them I think are biased and are pointed towards people who can least afford them.
Question: It doesn't stop people around here from smoking pot. It's illegal in the US, it's illegal here. But it doesn't seem to stop people doing it.
No, it's not going to stop people at all, I don't think. But I'm saying people know what the laws are and what you need to do to change them. That's how you most affect a society, by changing the laws.
Question: You're still performing in a jazzy vein, playing piano, still using words very much. What's the direction now?
I started off as a piano player. A lot of people don't recognise the fact that I was playing piano in different bands before I ever picked up the microphone. I've been a piano player for quite a while. So I still think that music is the best vehicle for words and ideas because it captures people on several levels. The lyrics are for the mind and the notes are for the soul.
Question: You mentioned Amnesty International this morning. What work have you been doing with them?
My son's mother works for Amnesty International in Washington, and they've been organising a series of benefits for their continued projects and publication of information in relation to political prisoners, particularly in certain states that have laws that are incompatible with human rights. The United States is still on that list.
Question: With the death penalty?
Right. And they're challenging the death penalty in several places, including Nigeria and China and Malaysia and Singapore. We want to support them because we see them as an organisation that does something instead of just talking about doing things. They actually go places and publicise things, and public opinion is very important in the changing of laws.
Question: Do you think the kind of work that you've done does change people's opinions and minds, makes them think, or is it just a reflection of where things are at the time?
If people are to be believed, the songs actually have had an effect on them, if for no other reason than they've been encouraged to continue in the direction that they've already decided to go for themselves. Oftentimes when people come up with ideas that are contrary to the trend as far as society is concerned, they need encouragement. They need to know that they're not crazies.
Question: I guess that's one of the things about music — you can make a much more immediate contact than you would if you were just saying these things. How do you see the link between the music and the words?
I think that records make the difference. You can take a flute and go downstairs and say the most important things in the world, and it still would only matter to the people who come by that particular street corner on that particular day. It's the fact that we've been able to put them on vinyl and on plastic to send them out.
When you blanket the media and paint them into a corner that's not right either, because there are [alternative media] that play things that actually benefit the community.
We're always pleased when we see a radio station or a magazine or something that actually does that and hopefully that would influence people to be courageous enough to look at the laws and make sure that a lot less of us are going to jail on bullshit pot charges and this kind of stuff in the future.