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.