Book Review by Dee Michell
Letters to Gil by Malik Al Nasir is more than a memoir, it is a tribute to Malik’s long-time mentor, teacher, and friend, the legendary poet, musician, and writer, Gil Scott-Heron.
In 1984, Malik Al Nasir was Mark Watson and Mark Watson was a survivor of the British state care system. Mark, then an 18-year-old homeless man, went along to a Gil Scott-Heron performance in Liverpool, England. He had no ticket to get in and no backstage pass and yet he managed to see the show and to meet Scott-Heron. The ensuing conversation says a lot about both men—that Mark had the audacity to meet the famous performer and that Gil had the humility and kindness to have a chat with the young man.
It’s the relationship between the men that forms the heart of Al Nasir’s memoir, and around which we learn of how Mark Watson—black father born in the colony of British Guiana (now the republic of Guyana) in the West Indies and white Welsh mother—ended up a ward of the state at the age of 9.
Small wonder Malik writes that he doesn’t trust social workers. The first place he was left was at the Liverpool Children’s Admission Unit, housed in a mansion built, ironically given Mark’s Guyana heritage, by sugar merchant Henry Tate (of Tate Gallery fame).
At the Unit, Mark was left in a room on his own for 14 days and nights.
“It was all part of their method of acclimatising new children to the care system” writes Al Nasir. “Apparently, it was borrowed from methods used to train homing pigeons” (30-31).
An ineffective method in Mark’s case, as he ‘absconded’ as soon as the 14-day ordeal was over.
Again, this says much about Mark’s intelligence and daring but instead of being admired for these qualities, the boy was punished.
Young Mark Watson lived in a variety of ‘homes’ over the next few years, some more harsh in their ‘discipline’ than others. He experienced beatings and racism, was aware of other boys being sexually abused by staff, and his education was negligible.
Malik Al Nasir writes about these experiences calmly, from the knowledge that he successfully sued the Liverpool City Council for the way he was treated and from the distance of years.
Mark Watson’s encounter with Gil Scott-Heron in 1984 was fortuitous. Clearly, Scott-Heron was willing to give the young man a go and organised for Mark to become part of his team when he was on the road in England, and later in the United States too. More than that, Gil encouraged Mark to believe in himself, he saw possibilities in Mark that Mark—beaten around as he was by the ‘care’ system—couldn’t yet see in himself.
Scott-Heron was also practical, teaching Mark invaluable skills.
Gil taught me about all the different facets of the music business…He exposed me to all its nuances and complexities. It was a thorough industry education…and it gave me a foundation that would put me in good stead later, when I was running my own record company (111).
Importantly, Gil also alerted the young Mark to the Black activism happening in England and America, and he encouraged him to write poetry.
There are poignant scenes in Letters to Gil of 20-year-old Mark improving his literacy by writing poetry in the confines of his cabin while working as a merchant seaman, and later immersing himself in Black culture both through the music scene and through reading—Maya Angelou, bell hooks, Langston Hughes and Rosa Guy.
Significant too are the conversations with Gil, who took the time to read Mark’s letters and poetry, and who made the effort to gently critique his work.
Letters to Gil is an inspiring read. This is in large part because we learn of the tutelage provided by the amazing Gil Scott-Heron to a young man who needed someone to support him. But it’s also because of Malik, a courageous, principled, and smart man who was willing to listen, to learn, and to take up opportunities.
Malik Al Nasir is now a published writer, publisher, public speaker, performance poet, and music producer who is doing a PhD at Cambridge University.
As he writes towards the end of his book, Gil’s mentoring “demonstrates what you can bring out of a person, if you just give them the space and the context within which to develop their potential” (260).
Malik Al Nasir is an author, performance poet and filmmaker from Liverpool. He has produced and appeared in several documentaries with artists such as Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Benjamin Zephaniah and Public Enemy, as well as footballer Mark Walters and many other luminaries. Malik started tracing his roots back through slavery over 15 years ago and his pioneering research has been recognised by Sir Hilary Beckles (Chair CARICOM Commission for slavery reparations), historian David Olusoga, and The University of Cambridge, where Malik is reading a PhD in history with a full scholarship in recognition of the significance of his research.
Thanks to Malik Al Nasir for a review copy of Letters to Gil.
Follow Malik on Twitter: @OYFtheBook
Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell