RACHEL MARTIN, host:
Today is Martin Luther King Day.
Maybe you get the day off from work or school, maybe there's a concert or a talk held at your local community center. It's a day when we think specifically about how Martin Luther King Jr. changed our country and our culture. And generally, it's a time when we think about where we are today as a country when it comes to issues of social justice.
But do you know how this day actually came to be? Did you know Stevie Wonder led the campaign in the early 1980s with the help of a man named Gil Scott-Heron, the godfather of rap. You might know him from the famous spoken war piece, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."
(Soundbite of song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised")
Mr. GIL SCOTT-HERON (Poet, Musician): (Rapping) You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip out for beers during commercials because the revolution will not be televised.
MARTIN: And Gil Scott-Heron joins me now in the studio.
Thank you very much.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: I'm really, really glad to be here because it's nice to see my contributions at work.
MARTIN: Your public radio contributions of an NPR listener.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: And it's very nice to be here to talk about something that I actually know something about, the holiday that's been legislated for Dr. King.
You're writing a book about this very topic, how this holiday came to be. What do you find are the most misconceptions? What do people not know about this holiday?
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: I think that this is really a people's holiday as it was brought about by the campaign that Stevie undertook. After 10 years, the black caucus of the United States has continuously brought up the bill to see if they could get it legislated. And there was literally - it was literally still on the table after that time, after a length of time. And in order to get it off the table and discussed and then taken into committee, there are a lot of things that a bill has to go through before it becomes a law.
But in order to change America, in order to change anything about the country, you have to change the law. But Stevie is the person who doesn't take anything, except for he wants for an answer.
MARTIN: You mentioned the tour. Explain to people what that tour was. Who was touring? You were there, Stevie Wonder was there, and you had a message.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: In the summer of 1980, Stevie put together an album called "Hotter Than July." And he was on "20/20" with Barbara Walters, and he talks about the fact that he was going out on tour with Bob Marley, and as he went around the country, he was going to invite people to come to Washington on the 15th of January to actually rally in support of the black caucus' proposal the Dr. King's birthday becoming a national holiday.
And that's what happened. What happened was that they called me and asked me if I wanted to do the first two weeks that Bob had been just touring with the Commodores and he wanted to take a couple of weeks off. So I was invited to do two weeks. And after I've been there a few days, I had a meeting with Stevie where he revealed that Bob actually has actually checked into Sloan-Kettering, that he was that ill.
MARTIN: Cancer center here in New York.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: And that there was a possible that I'll be needed for the entire show, which was like 43 dates, which was like four and half months. Stevie wanted to make a serious point, and for that he believed that he needed someone who's music was both entertaining and serious, and that's where I came in. So for the next four months or so, we went where you go. And everywhere we went we invited people to come to Washington and there was tremendous turnout.
MARTIN: Now, for people, younger folks who might not have even been around then or can hardly remember at this time - describe what the political culture was like when you were fighting to make this happen?
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: Well, the reason that the book is called "The Last Holiday" is because, not only was it difficult because it was for someone who is black and who's a social leader whose ideas had not always been instep with the establishment, but it was because - when you give people the day off that you pay for, there are always objections by the same people who control the purse strings.
MARTIN: Doesn't matter what the holiday is?
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: It don't matter what it is.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: That's why they have combined both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln's Day and the President's Day.
MARTIN: That's true. They didn't get their own.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: No, because - but they used to have their own.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: And in order to save money, that's like not because they like either one more than the other. It's because there's actually awareness of the truth so they've made it President's Day. And it…
MARTIN: But it wasn't just financial when it came to this holiday, wasn't it?
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: No, because Dr. King's ideas had often clashed with the status quo, and he had taken the country into something that a lot of folks did not feel they were ready for. But if not now, when, became the idea. And certainly, Dr. King was not necessarily one of the people who first think of it in terms of America's reality and America's history as deserving of a holiday. But I felt as though he represented not only himself in what he'd done, but a great number of people who had made contributions and had sacrificed to bring about what needed to be recognized, which was allegiance of Black History month, which is February. And so I felt as though it was relevant and necessary. But it was a time that America was screaming and kicking until it's reality.
MARTIN: A lot of that stemmed from the music of the time, and you had a really profound role in that. I want to get to your music. I want to hear a little bit from you. What are you going to play for us right now?
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: The piano.
MARTIN: The piano.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: You know, that kind of - what will I do? I wrote - I write songs. So I wrote a song about a lady named Fanny Lou Hamer who was also a revolutionary in her own right. She came from Ruleville, Mississippi, and made her primary contributions in the Sunflower County, Mississippi, where she fought for voter registration.
And I'm from the South. So I wrote a song for her because she was a - she was very important to me as a young person. I liked the idea of somebody, not only indicating that the things needed to be changed, but by leading that change, she was always out there.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) Once in my lifetime, I've been a child once. But there was no freedom or future around. I've been in places where you cannot eat or take a drink of water wherever you please. Now, that I meet you in the middle of the mountain where I meet you all out coming in. It's all I can think of are chapels and (unintelligible) all of the place we've been.
Raised up in a small town in a country down South, so I've been close enough to nowhere oppressions abound. And based on this mountain was a rare chance to see the dream was envisioned by folks just better than me. And since their lives got me to the middle of a mountain where you can't stop to give up on now, and their lights just shine on and starting to cloud from all over the places they've been. I kept thinking about all of the places we've been. She said hey, stay together, always together. Just 'til you say stay together, always together. Remember her saying stay together, always together. And so I say stay together, always stay together.
MARTIN: There was such a sense of nostalgia in that song.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: Because I was straining I had hard to remember the words, the lyrics.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: And even my voice thinks I'm losing my mind.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: I guess it's early…
MARTIN: But you - you talked about these people, these revolutionaries. People who are making real change back then. Do you see those same characters today? Are there people out there, are there revolutionaries today?
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: Well, you see, revolution sounds like something that happens, like, turning on the light switch, but actually it's moving a large obstacle and a lot of folks' efforts to push it in one direction or the other, have to combine. The people who are there when they finally moves visibly, when people finally realized that it's over here, now, and it was over there, those are the people who get the credit for it. But I think everyone who moved it a little bit further were folks who understood that you try and change things not necessarily for yourself, but for your children and for their children, and for their children, because you want things to be better by and by.
You see, Dr. King already had an education, so for him to fight for education was, like - obviously, for other people. Like anyone who risked their life to fight for something that they already have as far as I'm concerned is revolutionary because they're giving up their own accomplishments to help someone else to accomplish something.
MARTIN: What does Martin Luther King Jr. Day mean to you?
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: It's not mattress sale, that's for damn sure, you know. Because I read in a paper that Martin Luther King's Day mattress sales.
MARTIN: That's not when you go out to get good bargains.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: That's not what I'm hoping for. I'm hoping that, you know, that's a time for people to reflect on how far we've come and how far we still have to go, in terms of being just people. Hopefully, it would be time for people to reflect on the folks who had done things to get us to where we are and where we're going.
STEWART: And has it changed for you?
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: Absolutely.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: Absolutely. I was born in Chicago, but I was raised in a town called Jackson, Tennessee. And a lot of these changes that were necessary and talked about it as important have been made, like, people go to school where they want to go. They work for equal pay, they work for - they can go school and have an equal shot at a job. I mean, like, there are still people who have certain disadvantages that is inherit to their circumstances, but there's less and less of that all this time. So, let's just vote for less and less, until there's not. That's what I'm for.
STEWART: I want you to play one more song for us, if you will.
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: I used to live in - it was a coal-mining country as well as tobacco country and the folks who worked and lived next door to me used to get up before God every morning and to go and change shifts at the crumbling coal mine, and there was, they used to do…
(Soundbite of song, "Three Miles Down")
Mr. SCOTT-HERON: (Singing) Tu-tu-tu-doo(ph), Tu-tu-tu-tu-doo(ph). Here come the mine cars, it's damn the dawn. Another shift of men some of them my friends, coming on. Hard to imagine working in the mines, got coal dust in your lungs, on your skin and on your mind. Yeah, but I've listened to your speeches when you came to me, I was…
STEWART: That was Gil Scott-Heron performing on this Martin Luther King Day. He's writing a book about the experience, setting up Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. It's called "The Last Holiday."
We'll post video of this performance on our Web site, npr.org/bryantpark.
ALISON STEWART, host:
That does it for this hour of the BPP. Thank you so much for joining us. Signing off from KCPW, for this hour anyway, I'm Alison Stewart.
MARTIN: And I'm Rachel Martin in New York.
This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.