Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” has been elevated to legendary status over the years. Born out of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement, the spoken-word poem has been sampled, alluded to and referred to by many hip-hop artists, including Kanye West, Queen Latifah, Jay Electronica, Common, Lupe Fiasco and more. In this essay, I will first examine Gil Scott-Heron and his personal history, then analyze “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and its historical context, before examining its impact on culture and then concluding.
Gil Scott-Heron was born on April 1, 1949 in Chicago, Illinois. He was raised in Jackson, Tennessee by his maternal grandmother, Lillie Scott (“Singer”). When his grandmother died, he moved to New York, when he was 12 years old (Nosnitsky). He attended high school in The Bronx, endured attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and eventually settled in Manhattan (Tyler)(Scott). During his time at Lincoln University, he met Brian Jackson, with whom he founded the band Black & Blues. Originally, Scott-Heron was one of about nine members in the group, and, according to himself, was “arguably not the most important voice in the group” (Scott). The group eventually broke up by the time that Scott-Heron’s solo career took off, but he worked with Brian Jackson throughout his career. While Gil Scott-Heron was been honored as an excellent writer, singer, poet, satirist, father of four, voice of black radicalism, and even “The Godfather of Rap,” his life was far from perfect (Nosnitsky). He battled addiction to cocaine and other substances and was also HIV positive (“Singer”). Uncut magazine described Scott-Heron as a “doomed junkie” who “slowly killed himself with drugs, spent two lengthy periods in prison, and never quite came to terms with his chaotic childhood” (Mulholland). Scott-Heron referred to his musical combination of percussion, political themes and poetry as “black music or black American music” or “bluesology,” referring to himself as a “bluesician” (“Singer”). Over his career, he co-wrote and produced over a dozen albums with Brian Jackson – a legendary jazz pianist, flautist, arranger, and singer (“Singer”) (MacArthur). Scott-Heron has praised the often-overlooked contributions of Brian Jackson: “We made the poems into songs, and we wanted the music to sound like the words, and Brian’s arrangements very often shaped and molded them. … Sometimes I’d ask him and he’d convey in words what sort of feeling he was trying to bring about with that particular chord, and that helped me get into it” (Scott). In May 2011, Gil Scott-Heron died after lengthy battles with drugs and disease, at the age of 62 (Nichols).
In his writings, poems and music, Gil Scott-Heron discussed issues of love, children and a variety of topics; however, the controversial and politically-charged “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” received the most attention (MacArthur). Discussing people’s emphasis on “the only political piece” on the album, Gil Scott-Heron was a little disappointed: “When people picked “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” to decide what kind of artists we were, they overlooked what the hell the whole album said. We didn’t just do one tune and let it stand, we did albums and ideas, and all of those ideas were significant to us at the time we were working on them” (Scott). He lamented to the Houston Press, “The least inventive one on the album was the one that was the most heralded” (MacArthur). While Scott-Heron might have considered “The Revolution” to be one of his “least inventive” songs, it’s undoubtedly his most famous and influential. In New York in 1970, at the age of 21, Gil Scott-Heron first recorded the spoken-word poem for his live debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. On the original version (which is the version that I will focus on), congas and bongo drums accompanied Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken-word poetry. Released on the Flying Dutchman label, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is “in essence, a poetry reading accompanied by conga beats and various percussion instruments” (MacArthur). Later in 1971, Scott-Heron’s early – and best-known – song was rerecorded as a more rhythmic jazz tune with the help of his musical partner Brian Jackson’s flute skills (“The”). That version was included on the Scott-Heron’s debut studio album Pieces of a Man, which was produced by Bob Thiele, who also worked with John Coltrane as well as Beat poets like Jack Kerouac (Scott). Scott-Heron has written that, at the time, “Bob Thiele wanted to create a recorded chronicle of the era. Many changes in our society that took place in the 1970s were credited to the 1960s, and Bob wanted those sounds on wax. These were often albums that had no commercial potential, but that were enormously insightful as slices of an age and invaluable as snapshots of a period that reshaped America first and everywhere else later.” And, undoubtedly, “The Revolution” fits well in that category.
The title, now famous, especially in hip-hop culture, was originally a popular slogan during the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s in America. The song’s lyrics, with dominating social and political themes, connect with the black militant activism that was relatively common at the time (“Singer”).
At the time, the idea that media didn’t just observe society’s politics but shaped them as well was barely examined beyond academia (Nichols). Scott-Heron, on the other hand, passionately critiqued the “disengaged and disengaging character of broadcast news – and the crisis of commercialism” (Nichols). While condemning the media and consumerism isn’t too uncommon in recent hip-hop, it arguably wouldn’t be nearly as common without Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Honored as one of the “Top 20 Political Songs,” “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is arguably “more poem than song,” and Ian K. Smith of the New Statesman compared it to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (Smith). Rather than a simple catchy pop song, “The Revolution,” according to Smith,” is “the linear notes of a generation, a relentless stream of cultural references against hand-beaten drums” (Smith). The song aims to denounce “the elusive nature of political culture in Nixon’s America, and the inability of the mainstream to capture the real heart of the people” (Smith). Over the years, the song and its title have been “used, reused, and recontextualized” may times, or, put more bluntly, as Leon Collins, who lived with Gil in the 60s and 70s, put it, “That’s been co-opted and exploited a billion different ways” (Azpiri) (Nosnitsky). Additionally, the song has recently been considered an “anthem for a movement where Americans of all colors and creeds will stand up for their rights” (Burnett). However, the song was originally aimed at black people. With what some have called “militant vibe,” Scott-Heron fearlessly described and denounced the dominating culture. (MacArthur). In his “socially aware signature song,” he “pitted the cultural awakening of the Civil Rights era against American consumerism” in a poem that “took the form of a list of things that Heron hated: banal icons of white culture and loathed political figures that dominated American television in the 1970s” (“The”) (Mulholland). Following the Civil Rights Movement, Gil Scott-Heron, in the words of Lurma Rackley, the mother of Gil’s son Rumal, brilliantly tapped into some of the major events of the time “in a way that people could understand … and he made extraordinary commentary on the major issues of his time” (Nosnitsky).
At face value, some of the lyrics can arguably be interpreted as hostile, especially toward white people (perhaps not too surprising, considering that the song is essentially a denunciation of the dominant white culture of the time). For example, Scott-Heron emphatically says, “The revolution will not be right back after a message / about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.” Throughout the song, as he does in the previous quote, Scott-Heron does unquestionably critique consumerism’s constant sloganeering, but he does so with humor – humor with a bite (Nosnitsky). Scott-Heron has said previously, “I don’t know if I was as angry as I was misunderstood. I think that a lot of the things we did contained a lot of humor that went over people’s heads. We were clearly coming from a small southern town in Tennessee and we didn’t estimate what effect we’d have on national and international governments. We were trying to represent our community and speak about the things there. If people don’t understand the humor then it’s angry, but if people see the juxtaposition of the ideas then they understand where we’re coming from” (Nosnitsky). As Pitchfork has pointed out, “The Revolution Will Be Televised” is “dripping with sarcasm and subtly deadpanned double speak, even in his most harrowing moments. He also had an obvious love for slapstick verbal puns and could bend language in all different directions almost as a natural tic” (Nosnitsky). Part of what enabled Scott-Heron to so effectively use language for humor and impact was his use of “black English,” which, percussionist Larry McDonald argued, allowed him to “curse and swear and say the most outrageous things, and it didn’t seem obscene because it was totally in context” (Nosnitsky). The way that Scott-Heron twists popular references and allusions is both humorous and insightful. In the original version, after introducing himself and his colleagues, explains with deadpan humor, “We’d like to do a poem for you called ‘The revolution will not be televised,’ primarily because it won’t be.” Not only adding entertainment value, Scott-Heron’s satire allows a subversion to be “buried in the humour” (Smith). As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” – a concept that Scott-Heron seemed to understand and put into action.
The Revolution, according to Gil Scott-Heron, won’t be dictated by the government or by corporations. To make that point clear, he ridicules various government officials: “The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon / Blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat / Hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.” Mocking the claims made in advertisements, Gil Scott-Heron notes that the Revolution (unlike Ultra Brite, Schick, and other brands) “will not give your mouth sex appeal / The revolution will not get rid of the nubs / The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.” Denouncing popular television shows of the time, Scott-Heron says in the song: “Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so goddamn relevant, and women will not care if Dick finally screwed Jane on Search for Tomorrow because black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day.” Despite the song’s outdated allusions, The New Yorker called it a “classic that sounds as subversive and intelligent now as it did when it was new” (Wilkinson).
Repetition is probably the most obvious and arguably the strongest rhetorical device that Scott-Heron used the most in the poem. Perhaps ironically, in the same way that advertisements constantly emphasize a single slogan, Gil Scott-Heron repeats the song’s title – “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” – throughout the song. While many of his allusions act as denunciations, that specific line, as Scott-Heron has explained in interviews, captures the song’s message: “You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move… The thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film. It will just be something you see and all of a sudden you realize, ‘I’m on the wrong page’” (Rap Genius).
In conclusion, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” helped Gil Scott-Heron cement his title as “The Godfather of Rap” and the “Inventor of Rap” (The Nation, New Statesman). According to legendary Public Enemy member Chuck D, Scott-Heron laid the groundwork for hip-hop MCs to “do what we do and how we do” (“The”). Scott-Heron’s “unique proto-rap vocal style” over “bare-bones arrangements featuring pounding basslines and stripped-down drumbeats” heavily influenced the culture of hip-hop and “set the stage for rap as a form of sociopolitical expression for the masses” (Azpiri) (MacArthur). Aided by the use of slang, allusions, humor, and repetition, Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” not only captured the feelings of a specific time in history, but helped forged the future as well.
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