Legendary singer and poet Gil Scott-Heron used to introduce Liverpudlian Malik Al Nasir to people as his son.
Malik, then known by his birth name of Mark Watson, was more than Gil’s unofficial adopted son – he was an 18-year-old homeless boy who was brutalized in care homes before being tutored under Gil’s wing .
“Gil Scott-Heron saved my life,” said Malik The voice. “It was the difference between life and death, it was the difference between success and failure, it was the difference between, you know, a life on the streets in destitution, or the life I lead now.”
Malik’s journey from an illiterate and traumatized young man to a singer, poet and academic – who went on to fight and win a case against local authorities who agreed to keep him in custody – all depends on a concert at the Royal Court Theater in Liverpool in 1984.
Liverpool had, months before, seen an uprising in the historically black Toxteth, one of many areas to go up in flames in protest against ‘Sus’ police laws and racist oppression.
It seemed like the entire black community of Liverpool had gathered at the theater to see Gil Scott-Heron, one of rap’s great forefathers. Malik, who lived in the homeless hostel in Ujimaa, was desperate to meet his hero.
“So I came to the concert with no money, no tickets, and just this kind of desire to get in, but not knowing how I was going to do that,” he recalls.
“And it just happened that there was a photographer, Penny, who used to go around Toxteth to take black and white pictures, and she had a backstage pass. And I was like, ‘Penny, I don’t have a ticket, I don’t have any money, can you let me in?’ So she told them I was her assistant, and she sneaked me in.
“So I ended up having the best vantage point to see the whole show from the press pit right out front. Then
obviously, after the show, because I had the backstage pass, I was able to go backstage and, by a twist of fate, I managed to meet Gil and he fell for me. The rest is history.
Gil invited Malik to join him and the group the next day, and quickly traveled with the group doing a variety of odd jobs, from moving equipment to collecting money from promoters, to auditing. that the sound engineers were doing their job. But his main job was to be mentored and effectively trained by Gil.
Over the years, Malik has been involved in all aspects of the band, from arranging the musicians to marketing and deal deals.
A crucial moment was when Gil taught Malik to read. “At first a lot of the work I did was verbal, but while on tour in America Gil gave me something and handed me something to read and asked me to read it aloud. voice, because he was worried that I might have literacy problems.. And when I fumbled around, he could see that I was struggling to read.
“I clearly had a lot of trouble with reading and writing, and I was obviously very embarrassed and ashamed, because I had kind of joked my way, beyond all of that. You overcompensate with the verbal.
“He then encouraged me to start breaking the words down into syllables. This was done over a long period of time, to the point where I then became literate and fluent. But with poetry too, I was able in a way to test the language to its limits. And it gave me the opportunity to really expand my thoughts and ideas. It was incredibly cathartic.
Malik used to engage in sometimes heated debates on political issues with Gil, something his band members never did. Gil was fascinated by social and racial issues in inner city Britain, seeing clear parallels to struggles in America, and he took a keen interest in Malik’s time in the care system.
Life got worse when Liverpool City Council issued a compulsory purchase order on the four-storey family townhouse in Toxteth, which may have been part of measures taken in the 1970s to ‘dilute and disperse’ ‘ the black community.
Malik (then Mark), his siblings, his former Royal Navy Guyanese father and his Welsh-born mother were moved to a predominantly white housing estate in Netherley, on the outskirts of the town, where they suffered daily of racism.
He got into regular fights, mostly reacting to racist abuse, and it wasn’t long before social workers took him away, with the alleged collusion of his ‘nan’ ‘Flo (who, it was revealed later was married to her father) and a city councilor friend of hers.
At the age of nine, her first experience of care was a fortnight in solitary confinement followed by nine years of regular beatings at the hands of nursing home staff.
Malik was held in children’s homes, such as Greystone Heath, which were later exposed for sexually abusing children.
“They used me as a scapegoat to send a message to the rest of the kids so everyone would be told ‘if you don’t want this you’re going to stay in line’.
“I’m sitting watching TV and fists were flying through the air. And then I get kicked around the room by a social worker, and I would have no idea why this is happening to me.
“If I had any bruises, they would just stop my home leave for four weeks, until the bruises healed.”
Malik would then win a £120,000 out-of-court settlement and a public apology from the Lord Mayor for his treatment.
His life story is expertly chronicled in his book Letters to Gil. Malik, who converted to Islam, is currently studying for a doctorate at Cambridge.
He leads a group, Malik and the O.G’s. Their 2015 album Rhythms of the Diaspora. Volumes 1 and 2 feature appearances by Gil (who recites Malik’s poem Black and Blue, recorded before the singer’s death in 2011), as well as Jalal Mansur Nuriddin of The Last Poets and LL Cool J.
Letters to Gil is published by HarperCollins, ISBN: 9780008464431, £20, hardcover