An awe inspiring story taken from
'Gil Scott-Heron saved my life'
After a traumatic childhood Abdul Malik Al Nasir seemed to be heading for jail or an early death. Then, at the age of 18, he met the famous poet and musician – with remarkable consequences
Abdul Malik Al Nasir
Sunday 19 June 2011 20.30 BST
Malik with Gil Scott-Heron on tour in 2009
My brother Reynold introduced me to the music of Gil Scott-Heron. Little did I realise how it, and more importantly Gil, would go on to shape my life.
I was 18, had just come out of a childhood in care, was traumatised, illiterate and had no prospects. Reynold, who was older, showed me an album called Moving Target, which had a picture of Gil running through the streets of Washington seen through the telescopic lens of a gun. Reynold was politicised and well-read – unlike me. I didn't take life too seriously, partly because I couldn't face up to what had happened to me. He made me sit down and listen to the song Washington DC and the lyrics summed up so much of my life: "The symbols of democracy pinned up against the coast, the outhouse of bureaucracy surrounded by a moat./ Citizens of poverty are barely out of sight/ The overlords escape in the evenings, brothers on the night."
Gil was talking about the White House surrounded by the urban ghettos, the bits the tourists don't see – the reality of the city's ghetto life. My brother explained what the song meant. He drew a parallel between what Gil was talking about in Washington DC and what we, as black people, were facing in Toxteth, Liverpool, in the run up to the riots of 1981.
Reynold was trying to wake me up to consciousness. I had already got in with the wrong crowd, and he was concerned that if I didn't dissociate myself from them it would only be a matter of time before I was incarcerated again – and this time not in a care home.
Why had I been put in care in the first place? My name back then was Mark Trevor Watson, and when I was eight years old my father had a stroke. Dad was black from Guyana, my mum white Welsh. All the family (there were four kids, and mum and dad) were the butt of racist abuse. Dad, a former merchant seaman, was a real worker. Nothing could stop him. He even volunteered to work on Christmas Day 1974 for the Netherley Property Guards, who patrolled the warehouses on the Liverpool docks. It was a horribly cold winter. He left the house at 5am to wait for the bus to take him to work. It never came. Dad waited till 10am and eventually trudged home defeated. That was the only time I saw this big strong seaman cry. He didn't open his Christmas presents, he just went straight to bed. He had a stroke in his sleep and when he woke up he was a quadriplegic, paralysed from the neck down. He stayed like that for the rest of his life, in and out of the geriatric ward until he died four years later.
Mum, who worked in the Meccano factory, continued to struggle with the four of us. But she couldn't really cope. I was a handful – dyslexic and dyspraxic, but undiagnosed. I hated school. We were virtually the only black kids there, and the pupils used to be brought into school assembly to the sound of the headmaster's favourite recording – Black Sambo: "Black Sambo, black Sambo, living in the jungle alone, except for Big black Mumbo and Big black Jumbo." No one considered it a problem. After that everyone would turn to me and my sisters and call us black sambo. There were fights, and everyone called us troublemakers. At nine I was expelled from that school, which resulted in me being taken into local authority care in 1975.
I was "sentenced" to nine years under a care order having committed no crime. They didn't see it like that, of course. They labelled me maladjusted and told all of us that we were menaces to society; that society needed protecting from us. On the night they took me into care, they put me in an admission unit where they locked me in a room with bars on the window for 14 days and 14 nights. This practice later came to be outlawed following the infamous pin-down scandal in Staffordshire, but in the 70s it was common. It was the most traumatic experience of my life, for which I would later seek justice in the courts.
Just before Christmas 1975 I was taken to a place called Woolton Vale assessment centre, otherwise known as Menlove. It was a large, Victorian prison with bars on every window, locks on every door and an isolation cell inside. It had previously operated as a remand home for prisoners. In 1974 it had been converted to an assessment centre for kids, but still operated illegally under the old rules. Confinement might not have been permitted, but it didn't stop them. Meanwhile, the local remand centre, Risley, was full, so Menlove became an overspill for prisoners. This meant they were mixing children from broken homes with hardened criminals – and locking them up. Another matter over which I would later sue.
From there I was moved to several different community homes where I suffered varying degrees of physical and racial abuse over the years until I was 18 and my care order ceased. I was visited by my social worker who gave me £100, made me sign a form to say I would never come back for more money, and within a few months I was living in a hostel for homeless black youths.
That was when Gil changed my life. He was playing at Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre, and the gig was sold out. It was 1985, Gil had a record in the charts, and was at the peak of his fame. A friend of mine, the late photographer Penny Potter, got me in – she had a backstage pass and told his team that I was her assistant. I watched the show and was mesmerised. It was hard to describe what he did exactly – he rapped, he played jazz, he was a poet, he educated – he was just singing a song, but it was as if he was part of a collective soul that existed in the room.
After the show I went backstage with Penny. Gil was standing there with a bunch of people around him – photographers snapping away, reporters stuffing mics under his nose, promoters with bags of money, and the band members trying to get paid. Everybody seemed to want something from him. I shook his hand, thanked him for the performance and turned round to leave. He said: "Hold on a minute brother, what's going on round here? I heard you had some riots". I told him about Toxteth and how the black communities had rioted across the country in the long hot summer of 1981. He said: "Yeah we had some of them back in DC". He wanted to know about the people of Toxteth so I offered to take him to the scenes of the riots. The next day we toured the area and I gave him a running commentary of what had happened in each place, all the places that had been burned down and what had happened as a result.
Now if there's one thing they taught us in care it was how to cook, and I offered to feed Gil and the band. The trouble was I didn't have a place to live. So I asked my friend Dobbo if I could borrow his flat, cashed my giro cheque, and spent my two weeks' money on food. Gil bought his whole 17-strong entourage back to the flat and I fed them all. Entrees, starters, mango juice, the works. He tried to pay me £100, which was a lot of money then. I wouldn't accept it; he tried again and I refused again. When he realised there was no point in trying to pay me, he said to his promoter: "We'll be back in England in a few weeks. Give the brother the details of the hotel where we'll be." Then he said: "I'd like for you to join us on the tour." To do what, I asked? "Whatever the fuck you wanna do, carry some drums, whatever you want," was his response. And that's what I did.
Gil took it on himself to spend whatever time he could in the evening mentoring me, giving me encouragement and trying to foster in me a sense of self-worth. I had been indoctrinated by the care system to believe that I was maladjusted and useless from the age of nine, but Gil refused to accept it. He saw something in me that I did not see in myself – my potential.
I had told Gil everything about my life. Except for one thing – I could hardly read. I was just so ashamed. It was 1988 and I'd been on the road with him for four years. This time we were touring America with Richie Havens and Gil passed me a book and asked me to read a page back to him. I felt like my heart was going to stop. I'd always had the attitude that if Gil asked me to do anything I'd do it, and for the first time he'd asked me to do something I couldn't do. I'd always made myself useful by doing anything, from the band's laundry to flogging Gil's books at gigs, to helping the roadies, to navigating for the driver. I was always conscious of not trying to be a burden because I was aware he was paying for my flights and hotel rooms, and when he asked me to read and I couldn't I felt cold, and fumbled and fumbled, to the point when he said "What's the problem? Are you not fluent in reading?" That was the first time I ever knew a person could be fluent at reading. Being a child of the streets, fluency was something I'd always associated with talking; talking was my survival mechanism. Gil made me take stock of the fact that illiteracy was something not to be ashamed of, but something to address. I told him I'd never been taught – that was the first time I'd admitted it even to myself. In the care system education or literacy weren't encouraged, and most people came out of it like me.
Not many people know that Gil was a teacher – he had a Masters degree in English from Lincoln university. Despite not having a first degree he was accepted on to the Masters programme on the strength of two books he had written as a teen; The Vulture, a murder mystery, and The Nigger Factory, which was about life on black college campuses. I'd been running with the wrong crowd and he took it as a personal challenge to turn me around; to take me away from a life of hustling and make me productive. If I'd ended up like most of my peers in care I'd be dead or in jail by now. Gil's intervention saved my life.
He used to introduce me to people as his son, despite the fact that he has his own children. It was so touching. At the age of 12 I lost my father, and when I met Gil at 18 he took on that role and took it on seriously.
Back then, I had so many problems; my mind was like a spaghetti junction. There were so many narratives going on in my head that I couldn't unravel them, and Gil would listen to them all. At the end he'd invariably say one or two sentences that would sum up what it had taken me so long to say, and also direct me to what I should do about it.
In 1987 we were on tour and Gil suggested it was time for me to get a job. For two years I went to sea, working as a steward on a ferry, then on oil tankers, scrubbing decks, cleaning toilets, serving food. Every night from 6pm to midnight I taught myself to read and write. I started experimenting with language by writing poetry and songs. When I got to port I'd write to Gil, and enclose poems or songs for his appraisal. In between stints at sea, I would go on tour with Gil and he would appraise my work. By 1990, at the end of a period at sea, I had a considerable body of work; poetry, prose and songs. But I just put them in a box in a cupboard in my mum's house and left them for years
Gil then encouraged me to go to college and university and educate myself. The problem was, I didn't have any qualifications. So in 1990 I took a job with Littlewoods on a positive-action training scheme where they took on four black kids a year and trained them in management, and through that they sponsored me to go to college to study business and finance. I got a degree in sociology and geography, which seemed appropriate for a seaman with my background, followed by a postgraduate diploma in social research and a Masters degree in media production.
I continued to tour with Gil when I could. He was so proud of me. My degree was the culmination of everything he had invested in me and I'd invested in myself. What Gil gave me was a reason to live. At the age of 18 I couldn't see anything to live for.
In 1992 I met the Last Poets, a band that had been Gil's mentors and who are often credited as being the first rappers. Gil's famous song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was inspired by the Last Poets' Niggers Are Scared of Revolution. There was a yearning in my soul for spirituality. I had lots of questions about religion, but Gil was more spiritual than religious. Jalal and Suliman from the Last Poets spoke to me about Islam, it struck a cord and in 1992 I became a Muslim and changed my name from Mark Trevor Watson to Abdul Malik Al Nasir and started managing The Last Poets' leader Jalal. I later started my own record company and worked with the likes of Public Enemy, Run DMC, Wyclef Jean, Sly Dunbar, the Wailers and Steel Pulse.
Over the years things took a toll on Gil. For many years he had preached against the evil of drugs, but he became an abuser himself, and in 2001 he was sent to jail in New York State for possession of cocaine. When he got into trouble, it reminded me how much he'd helped me. So I flew to New York and visited him in jail – he'd been pumping iron, eating three square meals a day, which he rarely got when we were on the road, and looked more relaxed and fit than I'd seen him in years. I went through all the security checks, and they told me to take a seat in the visiting room while they got the prisoner. He didn't know who was coming, and when he saw me he had a huge smile on his face. The guard called him over and said: "Ah, the famous Gil Scot Heron . . . tuck your shirt in." It was just an attempt to humiliate him. I bit my tongue.
By 2004, I had received substantial compensation for what I suffered in care. I dug out my old poems from that box in my mother's house, and showed them to my wife Sarah. She said I should do something with them, so I set up my own publishing company, Fore-Word Press, and published my first book, Ordinary Guy, in my original name Mark T Watson. Gil was elated when I sent him a copy. Not simply because it was dedicated to him but also because he knew without his mentoring, I wouldn't have been able to read or write.
In 2008, I was producing an album at Wyclef Jean's studio in New York and there was a huge commemoration concert at Radio City Music Hall for Martin Luther King Day. Wyclef was performing, and he introduced me to Stevie Wonder. Now Stevie and Gil had been integral in fighting for a national holiday to celebrate Martin Luther King, and I told him about my relationship with Gil. "Is Gil out of prison?" he asked. Yes, I said. "Well, bring him here now." So I phoned Gil, and brought him to the show. When we arrived at Stevie's dressing room and I announced Gil to Stevie, Stevie Wonder stood up, and said: 'Gil Scott Heron y'all', and the whole dressing room burst into rapturous applause.
Last year Gil made a comeback album, I'm New Here, which got great reviews. I joined him on what would be his final tour of Europe.
It's three weeks since Gil died, and I'm still in shock. I'm 45, married with five children, and Gil has been the most important person to me throughout my adult life. His funeral in Harlem was a sombre affair. What touched me most was all the love in the room. After the band played a beautiful tribute and Gil's ex-wife Brenda delivered a eulogy, the rapper Kanye West took to the pulpit and sang Lost in the World, a song that contains a sample from Gil's poem Comment #1. It was a beautiful tribute.
After the service, I told Kanye my story and asked if he would take part in a tribute concert for Gil in Liverpool, the place where we met all those years ago and he took me under his wing. This is my way of saying: "Thank you Gil. You saved my life."
As told to Simon Hattenstone