In 1971, Gil Scott-Heron observed the gradual demise of a man in his neighborhood who was driven over the brink after being let go from his job without warning. What came of Scott-Heron bearing witness to that unraveling is “Pieces of a Man.” For the song, Scott-Heron replaced the neighbor with a fictitious account of his own father: Before this downward spiral, he appears to be a decent person with a solid grip on life. As the story progresses, different encounters with the man suggest that he’s wearing thin from misfortune. Scott-Heron’s melodies grow more and more agonizing as he watches his father, his neighbor, his fellow man become a shell of their former selves.
Twenty-six years after the song was written, New York City hip-hop renaissance man Bobbito Garcia interviewed Scott-Heron at his apartment for Vibe. Discussing a few standouts from his catalog, Scott-Heron, 47 years old at the time, said that he listened to “Pieces of a Man” every morning in order to clear his mind. He elaborated on the ritual: “Everywhere I’ve traveled, [people outside the U.S.] are concerned about Black Americans cause we’re still not welcome in the U.S. and we’re still here—standing. I put that in my music. You’re living where people obstacle everything you do. So if a man survives and comes back the next morning, then God bless, brother, and good morning to you.”
The album that song belonged to, 1971’s Pieces of a Man, was Scott-Heron’s first go at championing that resilience through music. The year before, he released Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a live poetry album featuring congas and some sparse singing. It housed the original spoken-word version of his most well-known song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” where, through a staggering number of 1960s pop-culture references, he cautioned fellow Black Americans that sitting idle and settling for scraps wasn’t gonna bring about any meaningful change.
Small Talk also called out Black people who thought their fashionable displays of Afrocentrism gave them license to look down on “common folk.” It comically lamented the U.S. government for pumping millions into a moon landing instead of the well-being of its Black population. And it gave Scott-Heron the space to express that no level of liberal outlook from white people would wipe away their centuries of wrongdoing—or his right to be angry. Its power rested in Scott-Heron’s candid criticism of his country and the frustration of realizing that change was hard to come by. Pieces of a Man shares this urgent appraisal of the Black experience, but it draws mainly on pain and sorrow rather than rage.
The album’s title track masterfully peels back the layers of a person’s psyche through strife and that attention to detail is mirrored throughout the remaining songs. A full band—led by Scott-Heron’s career-long collaborator Brian Jackson—brought something out in his poetry that congas alone couldn’t quite achieve. “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” feels like an intergenerational biography of someone who fled their cookie-cutter hometown for a big city, haunted by the trauma that resurfaces when they go back to visit. Like much of Scott-Heron’s early work, it also centers the experiences of people dealing with addiction, flipping the script on those who are quick to judge: “You keep saying, kick it, quit it, kick it, quit it. God, but did you ever try/To turn your sick soul inside out. So that the world, so that the world. Can watch you die?” On “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” he sings the praises of two jazz deities whose music can soothe the grave realities of life. Jackson’s piano and Ron Carter’s bass, when given time to exist without vocals, emphasize the grief in Scott-Heron’s cries of a downtrodden existence on “A Sign of the Ages.”
The feelings expressed on Pieces of a Man are those of someone processing grief in real time. Scott-Heron spent his formative years watching the assassinations of Black American liberation fighters. Less than two years before the album was released, the 21-year-old activist and Black Panther Party deputy chairman Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep by Chicago police. Hampton was just two years older than Scott-Heron and, like the singer, had the heart to not only hold the U.S. accountable for its crimes against its Black citizens in his work, but to take an active part in building the world that he wanted to live in (the message Scott-Heron was pushing in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”). Scott-Heron is also grieving the deterioration of the people who are still hanging on here. The influx of soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War to empty promises of upward mobility and new heroin addictions was also taking a toll on Black communities at this time. Years before his own struggles became apparent, tales of addiction were already a fixture in Scott-Heron’s music. The pain-filled melodies in Pieces of a Man are a response to feeling like the world is caving in on you.
Though Scott-Heron’s music dealt chiefly with the woes of American imperialism and oppression, he was part of a class of artists across the African diaspora who were growing tired with their nations’ politics and human rights policies. Down in Jamaica, Bob Marley and Wailers’ music became increasingly political in the early ’70s, in comparison to the easygoing ska they made in the ’60s. The island’s independence from Britain in 1962 did little to change the lives of its majority Black citizens and as political turmoil took shape, songs like “Get Up, Stand Up,” “400 Years,” and “Burnin and Lootin’” became the soundtrack of unrest and violence. At the same time, the Nigerian songwriter Fela Kuti, after years of studying and performing abroad—and familiarizing himself with Black American liberation movements like the Panthers in California—returned to his country to use his music as a tool to criticize the Nigerian military and governmental corruption that followed a three-year civil war. A few years later in South Africa, jazz pioneer Hugh Masekela released “Soweto Blues,” a tribute to children murdered by local police at a protest against the apartheid government’s institution of Afrikaans as the official language of schools. Masekela would continue to position himself as a leading artistic voice for the anti-apartheid struggle for the rest of his career.
This global Black frequency formed symbiotic relationships between artists who knew that they deserved better. Following in the footsteps of Black leaders across the diaspora who pushed for freedom and independence from colonial powers in the 1960s, their collective shouts suggested that the respective struggles they faced were microcosms of a larger, worldwide issue with white supremacist structures. But what those artists had in their work was what we’ve been conditioned to believe is the most effective way to inspire a revolution through music—grandiose rallying cries composed of chants, horns, or thumping drums (conventions that hold decades later in, for example, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”). It’s the type of music you can see yourself marching to battle to, chest swelled with emotion. Even Scott-Heron’s celebrated 1973 album Winter in America was a conceptual, straightforward attempt at assessing the country’s political climate and its effects on Black people. Pieces of a Man stands out because its approach is more existential: Scott-Heron details the ways that he, and those he’s observed, are coping in an unkind world that was unkind to their elders, and would surely be unkind to their unborn children. It’s Scott-Heron taking in the horror he’s witnessed across decades of his young life, morbidly staring at the casualties of those battles.
There are flashes of optimism when Gil Scott-Heron looks to the future, though. On “Save the Children,” accompanied by Hubert Laws’ buoyant flute, he sings of taking an active role in changing Black people’s reality before innocent youth have to grow up to the same bullshit. “Or Down You Fall” is a personal pick-me-up that cautions against stagnation. He presents his most poignant set of questions on “I Think I’ll Call It Morning,” a song about intentionally claiming good days for yourself. There, Scott-Heron posits: “Why should I survive on sadness? And tell myself I’ve got to be alone? Why should I subscribe to this world’s madness? Knowing that I’ve got to live on.” Even at his most unsure, Scott-Heron knew that this fight wasn’t just for right now. “Revolution isn’t an overnight thing,” he said in an interview with Players magazine (sometimes called the Black Playboy of its time) in 1975. “Like some people jumped up in the ’60s and said: ‘Revolution,’ and then in the next three or four years it didn’t happen, everybody said: ‘Naa, there ain’t no revolution.’ Revolution is a constantly building process, a constantly developing process.”
Pieces of a Man is a young Scott-Heron coming to terms with his world, disappointed in how unfair it is, scoffing at people who choose distraction over contribution to solving the issues, and admitting a genuine fear of what we’ll leave to the children we’re raising. Because the majority of our most adored anti-establishment music has been characterized by force and rage, hearing an artist exhibit their vulnerability to that ongoing assault through sadness is an illuminating experience. Anger is one of humankind’s most easily accessible emotions. And in American culture, it’s especially acceptable as a social device for men to establish and maintain their dominance—over enemies and their own families, equally. But anger is often linked to depression and suppressed feelings of sadness. On Pieces of a Man, while markedly painful to witness at times, Gil Scott-Heron’s election to process that unhappiness is a step in the right direction of destigmatizing what it means to publicly shed our skin. It teaches the listener, the activist, and the fighter that there’s ample space for every emotion. And it’s often in those moments of uncomfortable exposure that we go on to grow into better versions of ourselves.
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