Truer words spoken

When Gil Scott-Heron played in Liverpool in 1984, his message chimed with a young Black kid from Toxteth with bleak prospects. Malik Al Nasir says a chance meeting then changed his life forever

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“When you’re an adult and you’re struggling to read you feel really embarrassed, so you mask it. You try to get through society without having to let anyone know,” says Malik Al Nasir, from Liverpool. “But Gil found out.”

That’s Gil Scott-Heron, legendary musician, poet, and civil rights activist.

“We were touring America in 1988 and Gil passed me a book and asked me to read a page from it. He put me right on the spot and I was fumbling. At that point I just couldn’t hide it anymore. I tried to read it out, but I wasn’t very successful.”

Al Nasir was taken into care at the age of nine after his father became paralysed and was “externally toughened and internally dismembered” by the physical abuse and institutional racism he suffered.

He was singled out by one staff member for being the “big Black kid”, he says. “They’d find the biggest one and beat him down and then the others will fall in line – that was the tactic. It’s not dissimilar to what you’d find in gang culture on the streets.”

Leaving the care system at 18, semi-literate and destitute on the streets of post-riot Toxteth, Al Nasir says he was heading for prison or an early death, as he moved from one bad experience to another.

It was only after a chance meeting with Scott-Heron in 1984 that his life began to turn around. His new direction placed him on a trajectory where he is now “a net gain to society, not a net loss”. He is studying for a doctorate in history at Cambridge University – and recalls his remarkable connection to Scott-Heron in his new book Letters to Gil.

Their extraordinary friendship was born after Al Nasir was first introduced to Scott-Heron’s music through his older brother Reynold, who played him a track called Washington DC from the album Moving Target, released in 1984. In the 1980s, Washington DC was the murder capital of America, a place of destitution and dereliction.

“It’s one thing to be poor – it’s another thing to be poor and Black.”

“The song juxtaposed the realities of DC,” Al Nasir says. “The public had a perception of DC as a champion of democracy, a lily-white environment where tourists flocked to take pictures of all these grand monuments. But, outside of the White House, from the south-east to the north-west, you are surrounded by ghettos, and in those ghettos it was primarily poor Black people who were completely and utterly excluded from the political process. Many of them didn’t vote and if they got to work in the White House, it was probably a capacity of servitude.”

Al Nasir felt an instant connection to the song because of the way Scott-Heron laid out the reality in the lyrics. He could have been describing his hometown of Toxteth, a different place but with comparable issues.

“It was the same. A central white supremacist notion of power surrounded by poor Black people who were victims of that power. That’s not to say it was exclusively Black people – there were poor, white people going through some stuff as well – but when you add race into the mix, then you have another indicator of deprivation stacked on top of that. It’s one thing to be poor, it’s another thing to be poor and Black.”

Following this unforgettable introduction to Scott-Heron’s music, Al Nasir heard that the artist was playing a show at Liverpool’s Royal Court theatre and determined to watch the gig, despite not having a ticket. He managed to get into the show with a favour from his brother’s friend Penny Potter, who allowed him to act as her assistant while she photographed the event.

Afterwards she took him backstage, and Al Nasir thanked Scott-Heron personally for a wonderful show. As he turned to leave Scott-Heron called after him: “What’s going on round here? I hear you had some riots?” This question was the beginning of a conversation that led the musician to take Al Nasir not only on tour with him but firmly under his wing. It was the start of a mentoring relationship that awakened and encouraged the young Liverpudlian, and a lifelong friendship. With Scott-Heron’s support, Al Nasir could move on from the shame of being unable to fluently read a page in a book, to having his first volume of poetry, Ordinary Guy, published in 2004.

Malik Al Nasir and his mentor Gil Scott-Heron in Paris, 2010.
Above: Malik Al Nasir and his mentor Gil Scott-Heron in Paris, 2010. Main image by Ean Flanders.

It was conversations with Scott-Heron that inspired Al Nasir to become literate and write poetry, and he sent his poems to him for appraisal. The musician gave him pointers – to break down words into syllables and memorise them.

“He advised me to read the words aloud to myself when I was alone, to experiment with words using the dictionary, and to use poetry as a medium to apply words in creative ways to convey different types of meaning. This is when I discovered poetic licence – to do things with words you wouldn’t do in the narrative.”

But Scott-Heron encouraged Al Nasir to read not just for the purpose of developing his literacy but to cultivate an understanding of his history – of enslavement and colonialism. At the same time the budding poet also began listening to old blues, gospel, and spiritual songs.

“This gave me a notion of who I was and where I was from. I developed a sense of dignity and pride in who I was.”

Letters to Gil has been praised as a “testament to the tenacity of the human spirit”. Prior to meeting Scott-Heron, Al Nasir spent his time in the care system trying to survive by keeping his “head down, so it didn’t get knocked off”. By the age of 10 he had already resolved to one day write a book to tell his story and, now a published poet and author, he feels a sense of pride in keeping that promise to his younger self. Now he is preparing for another book, about his roots quest back to the slave plantations of Demerara in Guyana, which he will undertake next year.

“The biggest thing a slave could do to resist was survive, because slavery would kill you, so even just surviving was an act of defiance because many didn’t. My very existence is a part of resistance,” says Al Nasir, who began tracing his roots back through slavery over 15 years ago.

Al Nasir has formed a band, Malik and the OGs, as a vehicle to perform his poetry and in 2020 began a PhD in history at Cambridge University – all the result of Scott-Heron’s mentoring, he says.

“The potential to do things exists within everyone but if society suppresses that potential and leaves that person homeless, destitute, on the fringes, or incarcerated within the system, then the potential of that individual will never be recognised, and that person will become a drain on the state rather than an asset. I’m living proof that with the right interventions you can accomplish great things.”

Recalling their remarkable bond, Al Nasir says Scott-Heron “salved the wounds” from his traumatic childhood. “It was almost as if I had come in war-wounded and Gil was patching me up, but those patches were intellectual and emotional, from all the various things that had damaged me, primarily because of his understanding of the system.”

Following Scott Heron’s death in 2011, Al Nasir says he had a realisation – that school was out and it was time for him to swing into action.

“I’d had all the teaching I needed. It was time for me to go out and utilise what I’d been taught.” That’s what also led him to parliament to campaign about lifting barriers for Black people.

“If Gil had stood in judgement over me at 18 years old, he would have left me where he found me and never made any interventions. But the mere fact he didn’t judge me gave me the opportunity to achieve my potential.”

In the title track to his final album I’m New Here, Scott-Heron says that “no matter how far wrong you’ve gone you can always turn around”. Al Nasir says: “I do believe that mantra and it can be applied to any of us when you’re in a situation where you’ve gone down a particular pathway, or you find yourself not where you’d like to be. There’s always the possibility that as long as you live and breathe, you can turn your life around.”

Letters to Gil by Malik Al Nasir is out on 2 Sept, published by William Collins

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