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Author ORCID Identifier



Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Afro-American Studies

Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Ernest Allen, Jr.

Second Advisor

James E. Smethurst

Third Advisor

Steven C. Tracy

Subject Categories

African American Studies


For over four decades, from 1970 until his death in 2011, poet, novelist, and musician Gil Scott-Heron served as an architect of artistic protest and a conduit of social consciousness. Often referred to as “The Godfather of Rap,” Scott-Heron was a formidable presence in postwar African American music and literature. This dissertation demonstrates Scott-Heron’s significance to the praxis of black cultural politics in the postwar era with a particular focus on his productions and social activism during the 1970s. It examines the ways in which his poems and songs gave voice to historical events and intellectual currents that, in part, defined the black experience during that momentous decade. What is more, it positions Scott-Heron in the matrix of twentieth-century African American history and literary production, mapping his variegated connections to the Jim Crow South, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights/Black Power Movement, the Black Arts Movement, HBCU student protests, the Nixon Administration, anti-apartheid activism, blues poetry and music, transnational political struggles, anti-nuclear activism, Pan-Africanism, and popular culture writ-large. Aimed at raising consciousness and effecting change, Scott-Heron specialized in producing songs and poems that slyly exposed the contradictions of American democracy in regard to the historical experiences of African Americans. Much like the works of the West African griots with whom he identified, his narratives serve multiple purposes. On one hand, Scott-Heron’s recordings were designed to inform his audience about contemporary issues or impending events that might impact their daily lives. However, at the same time, these works were intentionally designed to archive, and more importantly, frame the history and cultural politics of his time. Scott-Heron, much like the Black Arts Movement as a whole, fundamentally undermined commonly held distinctions between the popular and the political, the artist and the activist, and the performer and the people. Accordingly, this dissertation analyzes Scott-Heron’s compositions as “aural histories” that documented key events, issues, and debates that reverberated throughout black America in the postwar era.