Gil Scott-Heron may not be a familiar name to many, but you can feel the impact of his poetry and music from the work of Kanye West to the protest cries of Black Lives Matter. If you see yourself as a citizen of conscience, he is an artist you need to know.
Born in Chicago in 1949, Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee by his grandmother, before finally settling in Manhattan. The precocious poet wrote from a unique black American perspective. His views on family home life, urban decay, and social dysfunction were both deeply personal and universally relatable.
By age 23, he had already published two critically acclaimed fiction novels (the racially and politically charged The Vulture and The Nigger Factory). Inspired by the artists of the 1960s Black Arts Movement, Scott-Heron then turned his focus to music in 1970. His style combined jazz, blues, funk and poetry/spoken word. He called himself a “bluesologist” and was content to perform in college and nightclubs with his friends.
At the behest of record producer Bob Thiele, he recorded a live album Small Talk At 125th And Lenox. The world was quickly introduced to a powerful voice at a time when beat poetry and urban disenfranchisement were coming of age.
The 1960s were a time of social upheaval around the world. Scott-Heron’s America was then just emerging from the age of segregation, rife with racial tensions set against the backdrop of a nuclear arms race, the Vietnam War, McCarthyism, and Watergate.
His most famous work “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is alluded to, sampled, and quoted across modern pop culture. It was originally a Black Power movement slogan, before he adopted it for a poem he wrote at age 21.
As African American identity found its footing in a contemporary context, the poem-turned-song became synonymous with the Black Power movement.
“TRWNBT” is an indictment on those reluctant to participate in the cultural revolution. In a time when mass media competed in a clash of values – crass commercialism and spin doctoring, – and polarising political ideologies, minds like Scott-Heron saw the impending dangers.
Distracted by information overload and mind-numbing entertainment, social apathy set in with people content to be at home, oblivious to what was happening in the wider world.
Less than 1 per cent of U.S. households had a television in 1946. By 1954, more than half (55%) had one, and by 1962 this number rose to 90%. The power of the mass media to set the public agenda was barely in its infancy as society soon realised the media’s power in not just reporting news, but influencing the news itself.
Artists and leaders like Scott-Heron warned of the effects of shocking images of the assassination of JFK and MLK and body bags of American soldiers in the Vietnam War being beamed directly into our living rooms.
The graphic nature of the 24-hour news cycle is naturally part of our lives now. As Dave Chappelle said in his 2017 Netflix Special Age of Spin, we’re no longer shocked by anything. For his generation, the Challenger shuttle exploding on live television in 1986 shook their worlds. It was a horrific image broadcast into the collective consciousness like nothing before.
Chappelle laments that nowadays, everything is televised every minute.
For your generation, the space shuttle blows up every day
What sort of revolution is it that is constantly being televised?
In a positive sense, the song also serves as a challenge to listeners. Scott-Heron admitted that many people missed the point of his song. It was not intended as a criticism of media powerplay narratives, but a rallying cry that the true revolution can only occur in the mind and heart, places where no major news broadcast can capture.
Sadly, these powerplays continue today. References to white America’s power in society are more apt than ever in Trump’s America in 2020.
You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and
Skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised
Scott-Heron’s words proved prophetic as the oversaturation of war, terror and social unrest has reduced the 24-hour news cycle to little more than popcorn entertainment. We are barely surprised with each new livestream of another African American male being shot in his car, nor are we barely surprised when we see students being tear-gassed, beaten and stomped by police.
The example of police brutality against America’s black community is a perfect example. To those looking in from the outside, it is unbelievable. For the black community, however, it’s business as usual. The only difference is that now we have smartphones and Tik Tok.
Today, the revolution is being televised. And hashtagged and tweeted and livestreamed and Instagrammed. What would Scott-Heron have to say about this age of social media?
In 2011, in a Dazed and Confused interview, he said:
The internet is a great example of what words can do. And I’m talking billions and billions of words buddy. Information is good to have, but I think there’s a lot of misinformation on the internet in the same way that there is on your radio and your television set. You have to learn to discern the difference between the two. One man’s revolutionary is another man’s terrorist. You still have to be able to decide if you are going to let terrorism into your home.
Music historians tend to reduce Gil Scott-Heron to a one-dimensional political icon. However, “TRWNBT” is just one example of many works exploring many themes throughout his work. His poetry also explored the plight of the working man (“The Prisoner”), themes of addiction (“Home Is Where The Hatred Is”), love and loss (“When You Are Who You Are”), in the same varied manner as all great poets do.
In his later years, he often spoke of his iconic song with a tinge of regret. To be reduced to one song, no matter how influential, was slightly disappointing for him. Furthermore, in a great twist of irony, his poems about the crack epidemic sadly became a personal reality.
After a brief hiatus in the 80s-90s, he picked up touring again towards the end of his life (with sometimes mixed results). And yet through it all, he never lost his charisma, which one friend explained as to why people kept seeking him out even as he struggled with drug addiction and a radically different music industry.
True to his passion, Scott-Heron remained determined to not focus on the past:
“You can’t live everything while I’m looking ahead. That’s where most people are, they’re behind me. They came behind me and they’re following me. I can’t look behind me and see everyone who’s following in my footsteps”
His impact on conscious rap is undeniable, even if he didn’t view it as such. Scott-Heron was merely a product of the times. Commenting on what he was observing and what he felt was important, he told the BBC in 2000, “I think we came along at a time where there was a transition going on in terms of poetry and music and we were one of the first groups to combine the two… and for that reason I think a lot of people picked up and decided we were the ones who had originated it.”
His actual relationship with contemporary rap is tenuous at best. For someone hailed as ‘The Godfather of Rap”, he had less than encouraging remarks for the popular music of the 2000s and onwards. He told Dazed and Confused his views on these alpha male types, and the false narrative they were a part of:
These artists are kids, they haven’t learnt any lessons so they don’t have any messages. They don’t know what the fuck they doin’. They tryin’ to be popular so there’s a lot of posturing that goes with that.
I’ve never been about to listen to negativity or bigotry. It’s never been in my work and for the most part I wish it wasn’t in my life…They wouldn’t hear it if you didn’t broadcast it, so I have to blame it back on the source, on the people who make it so visible, so omnipresent in our lives. You have to look right back through the programmers, the musical directors and the management to the ownership and see who’s responsible for making sure that those kind of ideas are still with us. I don’t like it no matter where it’s at. I don’t like from the artists and I don’t like it from the promoters of it.
Gil Scott-Heron passed away at age 62 in 2011. He left an indelible mark on modern rap and jazz/soul music. His music continues to inspire new artists and speaks truth to contemporary society. The quiet revolution for listeners’ minds and hearts rages on in new forms; none more crucial than in this age of mass-entertainment and uncertain political futures.
Scot-Heron’s words have been featured in many songs and videos. Some prominent contemporary examples include:
- “Who Will Survive In America?” – the concluding statements on Kanye West’s magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy painted a horrifying image of America’s descent into madness by way of the entertainment industry and perverted politics.
- “Welcome to Plastic Beach” – On Gorillaz’ 2009 pseudo-environmentalist album Plastic Beach, Snoop Dogg quotes Scot-Heron in his opening statement for the record. Snoop flips the quote to match the band’s contemporary use of digital media to reach a global audience.
Gorillaz and the boss Dogg Planet of the apes
The revolution will be televised
And the pollution from the ocean
Now with devotion
Push peace and keep it in motion
- Black Panther Official Trailer – The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s successful attempt at a cultural moment, the Afrocentric Black Panther not only enlisted the help of Kendrick Lamar to curate their dope official soundtrack, but alluded to Scot-Heron’s legacy in the film’s first official trailer.
- “Caterpillar” – Royce da 5’9″ ft. Eminem – opening sample featuring the above lines where Scot-Heron addresses listeners as “brother”
- “goonies vs. E.T.” – Run The Jewels 4 released in 2020 during the George Floyd protests.
Now I understand that woke folk be playin’
Ain’t no revolution that’s televised and digitized
You’ve been hypnotized and Twitter-ized by silly guys
Cues to the evenin’ news, make sure you ill-advised
Got you celebratin’ the generators of genocide
Any good deed is pummeled, punished and penalized