Book Review: Letters To Gil by Malik Al Nasir

Gil Scott-Heron’s work could hardly be more relevant as we move into 2022.

The singer, songwriter, musician, novelist, poet and activist, who died in 2011, was arguably one of the most influential recording artists to emerge since the 1960s.

Malik Al Nasir, the poet, musician and activist formerly known as Mark Watson, has quite a story to tell in his memoir ‘Letters To Gil’. Essentially it’s an extended riff on a great obituary that originally appeared in The Guardian.

At the age of nine, Al Nasir was taken into care when his father became paralysed after a stroke. The early part of the book is a moving, grim portrait of Liverpool care homes in the late 1970s and 1980s, a system which turns out to be mostly abusive, racist, neglectful and exploitative (some lawsuits roll on to this day). This is the situation that lead up to the Toxteth riots of summer 1981 writ large.

But then Al Nasir’s life completely changes in 1984 at 18 years old when he gets into Scott-Heron’s performance at the Liverpool Royal Court and manages to meet his hero.

From then on, the two become firm friends, and Scott-Heron becomes his mentor, educating him on the music business and Black history, reading and critiquing his poetry (despite Al Nasir being virtually illiterate when they first meet).

Al Nasir also joins Scott-Heron on several tours, becoming his trusted confidante and PA, and the most gripping sections of the book deal with the machinations of travelling alongside a world-class musician. Later there’s a moving section when Al Nasir visits Scott-Heron in prison during a very dark time in the latter’s life, and we hear a lot of detail about Gil’s sad death and the various heartfelt tributes that emerged in its wake.

‘Letters To Gil’ is a must for anyone with even the slightest interest in Scott-Heron’s work and its relation to other key proto-rap act The Last Poets (whom Al Nasir also befriended and worked with).

But there are issues with the book: there’s a lack of self-awareness/reflection at times, which seems a stylistic device rather than deliberate evasion. It could also have benefitted from more rigorous editing/proofing – there’s lots of repetition. It’s a shame that several lovely photos included in The Guardian article are missing here. It also has to be said that Al Nasir’s poetry, sprinkled throughout the book, leaves quite a lot to be desired, despite its powerful message.

Perhaps it’s telling that the most moving words in the book come not from Al Nasir but from Scott-Heron himself. He talked about the mantra his grandma had taught him, and then went on to sum up his experience of mentoring Al Nasir:

‘If you could help someone, why wouldn’t you? Take the opportunity, take the chance that you’re offering them and run with it, and become a fully-fledged adult and an artist and a gentleman and a father and husband and a brother of peace and generosity. You feel as though the spirits have touched you in a special way, because they have seen one of your dreams fulfilled.’

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