Discuss how Gil Scot-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” utilizes, plays with, or redefines “television” or “revolution” (or any other key term in it). Also discuss its significance as African American art/the civil rights movement
In 1970, the American poet and jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron, who has died aged 62 after returning from a trip to Europe, recorded a track that has come to be seen as a crucial forerunner of rap. To many it made him the “godfather” of the medium, though he was keener to view his song-like poetry as just another strand in the diverse world of black music.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised came on his debut LP, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a collection of proselytising spoken-word pieces set to a sparse, funky tableau of percussion. It served as a militant manifesto urging black pride, and a blueprint for his life’s work: in the album’s sleeve notes, Scott-Heron described himself as “a Black man dedicated to expression; expression of the joy and pride of Blackness”. He derided white America’s complacency over inner-city inequality with mordant wit and social observation:
The revolution will not be right back after a message ’bout 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 germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
Throughout his 40-year career, Scott-Heron delivered a militant commentary not only on the African-American experience, but on wider social injustice and political hypocrisy. Born in Chicago, Illinois, he had a difficult, itinerant childhood. His father, Gilbert Heron, was a Jamaican-born soccer player who joined Celtic FC – as the Glasgow team’s first black player – during Gil’s infancy, and his mother, Bobbie Scott, was a librarian and keen singer. After their divorce, Scott-Heron moved to Lincoln, Tennessee, to live with his grandmother, Lily Scott, a civil rights activist and musician whose influence on him was indelible.
He recalled her in the track On Coming from a Broken Home on his 2010 comeback album I’m New Here as “absolutely not your mail-order, room-service, typecast black grandmother”. She bought him his first piano from a local undertaker’s and introduced him to the work of the Harlem Renaissance novelist and jazz poet Langston Hughes, whose influence would resonate throughout his entire career.
In the nearby Tigrett junior high school in 1962, Scott-Heron faced daily racial abuse as one of only three black children chosen to desegregate the institution. These experiences coincided with the completion of his first volume of unpublished poetry, when he was 12.
He then left Lincoln and moved to New York to live with his mother. Initially they stayed in the Bronx, where he witnessed the lot of African Americans in deprived housing projects. Later they lived in the more predominantly Hispanic neighbourhood of Chelsea. During his New York school years, Scott-Heron encountered the work of another leading black writer, LeRoi Jones, now known as Amiri Baraka.
While he was at DeWitt Clinton high school in the Bronx, Scott-Heron’s precocious writing talent was recognised by an English teacher, and he was recommended for a place at the prestigious Fieldston school. From there he won a place to Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, where Hughes had also studied, and met the flute player Brian Jackson, who was to be a significant musical collaborator. During his second year at university, in 1968, Scott-Heron dropped out in order to write his first novel, a murder mystery titled The Vulture, set in the ghetto. When it was published, two years later, he decided to capitalise on the associated radio publicity by recording an LP.
The jazz producer Bob Thiele, who had worked with artists ranging from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane, persuaded Scott-Heron to record a club performance of some of his poetry with backing by himself on piano and guitar. The line-up was completed by David Barnes on vocals and percussion, and Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on congas, and Small Talk at 125th and Lenox was released on the Flying Dutchman label. Pieces of a Man (1971) showed Scott-Heron’s talents off to a fuller extent, with songs such as the title track, a fuller version of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, and Lady Day and John Coltrane, a soaring paean to the ability of soul and jazz to liberate the listener from the travails of everyday life.
The following year, his university-set novel, The Nigger Factory, was published and his final Flying Dutchman disc, Free Will, was released. Following a dispute with the label, Scott-Heron recorded Winter in America (1974) for Strata East, then moved to Clive Davis’s Arista Records; he was the first artist signed by the newly formed company.
Arista steered Scott-Heron to chart success with the disco-tinged, yet brazenly polemic, anti-apartheid anthem Johannesburg, which reached No 29 in the R&B charts in 1975. The Midnight Band, led by Jackson on keyboards, was central to the success of Scott-Heron’s first two albums for Arista – The First Minute of a New Day and From South Africa to South Carolina – the same year.
Jackson left the band as the producer Malcolm Cecil arrived. Cecil had helped the Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder chart funkier waters earlier in the decade, and under his direction Scott-Heron achieved his biggest hit to date, Angel Dust (1978), which reached No 15 in the R&B charts. With its lyrical examination of addiction it became an ironic counterpoint to the cocaine abuse that dogged Scott-Heron’s later years.