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Gil Scott-Heron's Revolution | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Gil Scott-Heron's Revolution

When the role of media not just as observer but as shaper of our politics was barely discussed outside academic circles, Gil Scott-Heron gave us “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” still the savviest critique of the disengaged and disengaging character of broadcast news—and the crisis of commercialism.

As it turned out, some revolutions would be televised. But the blow-dried reporters and the drive-by anchormen never quite got the whole story. And time confirmed that Scott-Heron was right about the radical politics he embraced, and outlined so brilliantly on a series of groundbreaking albums in the 1970s. It is still best communicated via the spoken word. When activists gather, they still note the failures of the media and utter the “revolution will not be televised” catchphrase that Gil Scott-Heron added to the contemporary discourse.

Heron, who has died at age 62 after a long battle with drugs and disease, is being hailed as the “godfather of rap.” And it is easy to make the case for his influence on Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy and dozens of other artists—including Kanye West, whose latest album features a long except from Scott-Heron’s “Who Will Survive in America?”

But Scott-Heron, a student of the Harlem Renaissance who was steeped in the literature and the ideas of the liberation movements that preceded the 1960s, had an even broader influence on the culture and the next generations. Just as Billy Bragg’s Thatcher-era songs introduced young Brits and Americans to the language of solidarity and socialism, Scott-Heron taught us about apartheid (“Johannesburg”), environmental racism (“South Carolina”) and the harshest realities of an America that never seemed to get its priorities right (“Whitey on the Moon”).

Scott-Heron’s lyrics demanded that serious young people start thinking, start studying, start creating—and he made no secret of his determination that all this activity needed to be fused with activism. He was always challenging, and exciting. Even at the darkest and most difficult stage of his four-decades-long career, Scott-Heron could reach heights—intellectual and musical—that few artists have even imagined.

We traveled in some of the same circles years ago. I saw Scott-Heron a lot, in the good days and the bad. I remember, in particular, a show in Philadelphia a decade ago, where Scott-Heron and a reassembled Midnight Band (featuring his remarkable long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson) began on a harrowing note. The band was as tight as ever. But Scott-Heron, wrestling with his own demons and his frustration with a music business that was not then honoring its elders, seemed scattered and unfocused. As the night progressed, however, he homed in on a message about the failure of the government to provide even a measure of equal care, let alone opportunity, for young mothers and children. Drawing from songs from across his career, and steering toward a wrenching rendition of “Whitey on the Moon,” Scott-Heron reached a crescendo that was as powerful as anything he had produced in his cool, brilliant youth.

Scott-Heron and I had plenty of shared interests. But we always homed in on a shared fascination: the groundbreaking work played by a generation of older radicals, especially C.L.R. James, in shaping the ideology of the the historical anti-colonial movement and the importance of recognizing the need pull those ideas forward into a movement against the neocolonialism of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the new class of economic viceroys.

But our shared touchstone was an understanding of media as not just a messenger but an issue that needed to be addressed. I had always hoped to get Scott-Heron to a National Conference for Media Reform. It struck me that a whole conference could be built around the questions raised by a remarkable man, a remarkable song and the necessary observation that:

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,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.
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.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution 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.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie May
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,
or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.
NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32
or report from 29 districts.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being
run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the proper occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock
news and no pictures of hairy armed women
liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back after a message
bbout a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

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