The saddest thing about sudden deaths is that it feels like someone has been stolen from this earth. All the potential, all the force of their existence, snuffed out like a candle. We always say that they were taken too soon, and it is always true. When drugs are involved, the feelings are even more complicated. We could say we saw it coming, but that doesn't make it right. We could say that someone should have helped. But many people helped, and sometimes, the patient doesn't want to get better. Sometimes, the clutch of addiction is too tight and too comfortable.
Tonight, at the Grammy Awards, Whitney Houston will be honored. She was a huge star, a force of nature, and her loss breaks the hearts of musicians, of music fans, and of millions of people who never knew her personally, but knew her music and her force and her passion.
There will be no tribute to Gil Scott-Heron at the Grammys.
Remember Gil Scott-Heron? He died in May 2011, for reasons that are still unclear. (Like Whitney's death, the cause of death may never be known, or at least, it may never be released.)
Gil was a legend. Whitney was a legend. Both recorded powerful albums that stood the test of time, that serve as touchstones to the eras in which they were released.
Both of them died tragically, horrifically, and under that cloud of suspicion and sadness. Was it drugs? Was it an overdose? Or was it just their bodies, wearing out after so much abuse and misuse and maltreatment?
So my question is this: why is it that Gil Scott-Heron won't receive a tribute?
Their music was fundamentally different. Gil sang (and spoke) about revolution, about crime, about remorse and addiction and injustice. Whitney sang about love.
I mean no disrespect. Both of them had their talents, and both of them are remarkable artists in their own right. Whitney sang with force and authority, but her subject matter was ultimately never going to be ground-breaking.
Gil sang "Whitey on the Moon." Whitney sang, I have nothing if I don't have you.
Gil sang protest music. Whitney sang pop music.
Whitney sang "Didn't We Almost Have It All?" Gil sang "We Almost Lost Detroit," a dirge about the partial nuclear meltdown in 1966 at Detroit's Fermi 1 nuclear power plant.
It is almost unfair to compair the two, and yet, because of the circumstances, they will be compared. Both of them died in the same 12-month period (the same period as Michael Jackson - no doubt he will also be honored tonight.) One will be given a star-studded tribute tonight, before the biggest names in music today. And the other - he will be part of a slide show. He will be "one of those other people who died."
Was Gil a legend? I believe he was. Where would hip-hop be without "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised?" Where would revolution be - or the writers of revolution, who spin his phrase into a thousand different variations: The revolution will be tweeted; the revolution will be on YouTube; the revolution will be livestreamed, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum.
Gil influenced jazz musicians. He influenced R & B artists - he was a bluesologist himself, he would tell interviewers. Some would say he helped to create the genre of music that would be come to be called rap or hip-hop. Chuck D - the authorative voice of Public Enemy - said "we do what we do and how we do because of you. And to those that don't know tip your hat with a hand over your heart & recognize."
So why doesn't the recording academy tip their hat and recognize? Well, it's this simple. Gil was a scary man. He was a man who spoke truth to power. His voice was filled with anger. More, it was filled with disappointment: at himself, at his loved ones, at the America that he longed for and that he no longer could believe in.
And Whitney? Whitney was safe. She is safe. This is just the truth. The most controversial thing Whitney Houston ever did, musically speaking, was to re-record a country singer's song as an R & B power ballad. She was discovered by starmaker Clive Davis. Gil Scott-Heron wasn't exactly discovered: he forged his own path to success, from 125th Street and Lenox to the world's stage. He wrote his first novel at age 19. He made people pay attention and didn't care particularly if they liked what he had to say.
Both of these artists' deaths are tragic losses for the world. We mourn the deaths of all like Whitney, like Gil, like Michael, like Don Cornelius, who should be here today and are not. But we should also recognize that a hero fell this year. Gil deserves more than a picture in a slide show. While I'm watching the performances of dance music and weepy ballads and soulful declarations of love, I'm going to be thinking about the other voice that was silenced this year. I wonder what Gil would have to say today about the treatment he's getting from his fellow musicians. Sadly, it probably wouldn't surprise him at all.