Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Tongo Eisen-Martin: The revolution is live

Today April 30, marks the end of National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. The bookend to my April 1 post on musician, poet, and literary artist Gil Scott-Heron is in tribute to Tongo Eisen-Martin, San Francisco’s newly appointed poet laureate, and a multidisciplinary artist in his own right. Eisen-Martin’s inaugural address and the reading he curated for the occasion was live-streamed on April 22 by the San Francisco Public Library in cooperation with local literary institutions, City Lights Books and Litquake. You can watch the entire 90 minute program here:

Please be patient as I am only just now realizing the how and why of Eisen-Martin’s standing as a natural torch-bearer for a modern style of poetry the likes of which Scott-Heron forged and the performing hip hop poets of the ’90s brought back into vogue: Both Eisen-Martin, like Scott-Heron, make substantive use of revolutionary rhetoric and their dead serious lived experience as Black men in America. While rooted in Black experience, the content expresses a profoundly deep love of and want for liberation of all oppressed peoples which leads with the dismantling of the structure of a capitalist society built on white supremacy, the one we historically and presently inhabit. That’s a lot for some folks, I know. There is also a spiritual core to the content that veers from the satirical to the surreal, all of it of a piece with its message.

Scott-Heron famously followed in the footsteps of his inspiration Langston Hughes, and Eisen-Martin has direct links to that lineage of jazz and blues poets: I’m not going to give away the hand, so if you’re interested you can dig around on your own and make the connections.

Though familiar as I am with Scott-Heron’s work, and in the several hours I’ve talked poetry and in the many more spent reading and listening to Eisen-Martin, Scott-Heron didn’t come up. Why? Well, Gil is the poet most often checked when people not-so-well-acquainted with poetry, Black poets, hip hop, Black music or Black Arts think of the first time they hear Eisen-Martin at work: I didn’t want to be that person, so I didn’t say so. Besides, that, I knew Eisen-Martin was more likely to name revolutionary, feminist, activist poet Audre Lorde, as someone he’d read widely and revered; that he’d studied with scholar Manning Marable, who’s written extensively on Malcolm X, and that he has appreciation for a spectrum of music, from Handy to Hendrix. But anyone who’s a regular at Eisen-Martin’s virtual readings will have noticed the image tacked to wall of his Zoom background: A picture of Scott-Heron, preaching to thousands.

For his inaugural event, friends, family, fans and San Francisco poet laureates emeritas Janice Mirikitani, devorah major and Kim Shuck were in attendance as Eisen-Martin passed the virtual mic to a cast of extraordinary poets, their work helping to give him his start and sustain him: They were, in no particular order here, his brother, Biko Eisen-Martin; early supporter, Marc Bamuthi Joseph; running mates during his New York years, Jive Poetic, Anthony Morales and Mahogany L. Browne, and the local network upon his Bay Area return: poet Joyce Lee, community organizer Uncle Damien and Alie Jones, co-founder of his newly established independent publishing house, Black Freighter Press. All contributed to making the poet and his inaugural event unprecedented in its power and presence. The humility of Eisen-Martin, and all of the poets, their collective ability to be attentive to each other’s work as they prepared to respond then perform their own considerable pieces without any interruption to their respective flows was part of the revelation. The intensely personal and political content was extraordinary, alive with excellence, contributing to the livestream’s immediacy, prescience and what will be its staying power: It was epic, in all respects. These poets of the Bay Area and beyond are the voices of the here and now, speaking to our precarious times, to neverending police violence and murder of Black people, and the everlasting oppression of indigenous people, women and the environment – matters that impact all people – delivered through Black (and Brown) lenses.

I hope readers of this space will set aside time to listen to the 90 necessary and critical minutes archived here, so that you may see and hear what we are doing here in San Francisco under Eisen-Martin’s steady guidance. “It’s the best decision this country ever made,” said Mahogany L. Browne of Mayor London Breed’s appointment of Eisen-Martin. “You’re a soul survivor – you are the best of us,” said brother Biko Eisen-Martin. ”Tongo might be the greatest poet of our generation but he’s a very, very good man,” said Marc Bamuthi Joseph in an introduction that also served as a lead up to a piece in which he conjured the life, slow death and words of Gil Scott-Heron.

And so the month ends where we began it: The revolution is in good hands.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Book news, Poetry, video, , ,

National Poetry Month and Jazz Heritage Month Open with Gil Scott-Heron, Born 4/1

April marks National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. This month’s posts will attempt to shine a light on great moments and people in jazz and poetry, past and present.  

Gil Scott-Heron is a timeless poet and performer who published poems and prose, in addition to performing songs on piano–often classified as jazz–but with an emphasis on words. There are echoes of blues and gospel, rock’n’soul in his grooves. And prophecy. Always ahead of the game and yet right on time. Alien (Hold On To Your Dreams) is one of his classics, a song I think of often in these trying times for

In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron was barely 21 when his first novel, The Vulture, was published and his startling, spoken-word record, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, caught his incisive cool on tape. “I consider myself neither poet, composer, or musician. These are merely tools used by sensitive men to carve out a piece of beauty or truth that they hope may lead to peace and salvation,” he wrote in the album’s liner notes. Accompanied only by conga drums and percussion, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox featured a reading of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Scott-Heron’s most enduring work and an early masterpiece, its flow combining elements of both poetry and jazz.

“The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox

In four parts without commercial interruptions.”

Excoriating the media and marketing, the song’s structure burrowed its way into the collective consciousness of musicians—both mainstream and underground—and listeners alike; it is referenced throughout music, and rather un-ironically the title phrase has been repurposed to advertise consumer goods, from sneakers to television itself. The piece is also, of course, foundational to hip-hop, its words potent and direct, even if some of the allusions and references may be lost on those uneducated in ‘60s or ‘70s culture. It also sounds great, which explains why it’s a standard-bearer for all music, whether it be politicized rock’n’soul, funk or jazz. Pulsing throughout the piece is Scott-Heron’s projection, a foreshadowing of the realities of global connectivity and the pacifying effect on the brain produced by viewing from a small screen. Heron’s vision was a word to the wise:

“The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal…
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised.”

Positing a necessary parsing of media-generated “reality” from truth and setting his poem to music on his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron was caught in the chasm between jazz and soul, poetry and rock, and few knew just what to do with the new poet and big bass voice on the scene, though time would reveal his impact: As the years rolled by, this poet of vision would weigh in on matters environmental and racial, as well as political and social. Though Scott-Heron’s voice was too often a cry in wilderness, it served as a clarion for future generations of conscious writers and thinkers.

Born in Chicago April 1, 1949, Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee by his grandmother until he and his single mother, a librarian, eventually moved north to New York City. As a teenager, he excelled at writing and earned enrollment at Fieldston, a progressive Ivy League preparatory school. Upon graduation, he chose to attend Lincoln University in Philadelphia, quite simply because it was the alma mater of poet Langston Hughes. As a musician, Scott-Heron’s style was conjoined with the word styles of Hughes, as well as those of talkers like Malcolm X and Huey Newton. But it was “musicians more than writers” who inspired him, and he used the rhythms of folk, blues, soul, and jazz to fulfill the intensity of his emotion. “Richie Havens—what he does with the images and themes, Coltrane—the time defiant nature and thrust of his work. Otis Redding—the way he sings lyrics so that they come through as sounds. You can really appreciate how close a saxophone is to the human voice when you hear Otis singing. I sometimes write poetry, in a way, like Otis sings. The sounds form shapes. Like clouds banging into each other. That’s how I get loud sounds in my poetry,” said Scott-Heron to Jazz and Pop‘s Nat Hentoff.

Read: More on Gil Scott-Heron in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Jazz, Poetry, , ,

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