Book reviews

Malik Al Nasir – ‘Letters to Gil: A Memoir’

Malik Al Nasir Letters to Gil: A Memoir

(William Collins, 320pp., £20. Book Review by Chris Parker)

At the age of eighteen, semi-literate, destitute, bewildered and directionless after spending his adolescence in Liverpool’s so-called ‘care’ system, Malik Al Nasir (then known by his former name Mark T. Watson) talked his way backstage after a concert to meet his hero, Gil Scott-Heron. Turning to leave after complimenting the singer on his performance, he is called back: “Hold on a minute, brother. What’s going on round here? I heard y’all had some riots?” The subsequent conversation changed Al Nasir’s life, and Letters to Gil movingly yet unsentimentally chronicles this transformation.

Taken into ‘care’ at nine after his father is paralysed, Al Nasir enters a nightmare world which will be all too familiar to anyone who’s read Lemn Sissay’s extraordinary memoir My Name is Why: cruelty, neglect and racism combine to render his life almost unbearable, and only his determination to survive and prove his worth prevent his being irredeemably overwhelmed – a quality Gil Scott-Heron seems instinctively to recognise at their chance meeting, taking him on as  factotum/pupil and eventually, surrogate son/confidant. 

Malik Al Nasir’s account of his early life, while frank and touching, is at once a searing indictment of the institutional racism at the heart of the contemporary ‘care’ system, a moving illustration of the redemptive power of music and poetry (personified by Gil Scott-Heron), and (almost incidentally), courtesy of its intimate glimpses of moments in the lives of Scott-Heron himself and other pioneers such as Jalal Nuriddin, a valuable insider’s account of the roots of rap and hip-hop. As Lemn Sissay points out in his characteristically sensitive and lucid introduction, by telling his story, Malik Al Nasir joins an ‘illustrious company’ of survivors ‘who have lived to tell epic tales of betrayal and redemption’. A harrowing yet ultimately heartening memoir, Letters to Gil transcends the purely personal to make an important contribution to the burgeoning science of public history, championed by the likes of David Olusoga.

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‘Letters to Gil: A Memoir’ was published on 2 September

LINK: Publisher’s website

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