Originally scheduled to take place at Wilton’s Music Hall, this event – part book launch, part celebration, part poetry slam – sold out so quickly the organisers hurriedly moved it to the larger Clapham Grand, confirmation of both the resurgent interest in poetry and the lingering affection for the artist universally recognised as the prototype rapper.
It’s perhaps the late venue change that accounted for the slightly shambolic nature of parts of the evening, with malfunctioning, soundless back projector and wayward piano-stand interrupting the smooth flow of things; but the mixture of well-meant intentions and intermittent unreliability probably reflected something of Gil Scott-Heron’s character - particularly when combined with the fiery intelligence of the poets and the flowing funk of the musical grooves.
The evening was punctuated with readings from Scott-Heron’s newly published posthumous memoir, The Last Holiday,an account of the poet’s time touring America with Stevie Wonder21years ago trying to raise support for a national holiday in tribute to Martin Luther King. The excerpts are full of his characteristic love and humour not to mention the keen emotional and political insight that marked works like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. That landmark piece provided the starting point for one of the show’s early highlights when Ben Mellor, the first of the evening’s poets, inverted the notion in “Television Will Not Be Revolutionised”, a sardonic assessment of the medium’s revisionist tendencies.
When the back-projections were finally functioning, a succession of clips of Scott-Heron performing and in conversation revealed his engaging, haggard warmth, while an impromptu funk trio of electric piano, sax and harmonica, all former members of his Amnesia Express band, got the room grooving with a sly, smoky run through his most popular song, “The Bottle”. Before Gilles Peterson popped up for a DJ set based around Scott-Heron’s music, compere Salena Godden offered her own poem inspired by, and incorporating, some of his more famous phrases, anchored in the present by references to the Stephen Lawrence case and a call for equivalent justice in the case of Smiley Culture.
But it’s feisty south London poet Kate Tempest who got the most rousing response of the night for her poem “Patterns”, a long, hypnotically involving piece about the way our lives a restructured by patterns. Delivered in a rolling rush of emotion and rhythm, it clearly drew from a deep well of bitter personal experience, yet at the end of its 15-minute course, the ultimate effect was of uplifting tenacity and endurance. Scott-Heron’s himself would surely have approved.