The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Gil Scott Heron and the Power of Poetry

Gil Scott Heron, far left, alongside Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, and Gladys Knight at a press conference in Washington, D.C., 1982. (Daily News)
Gil Scott Heron, far left, alongside Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, and Gladys Knight at a press conference in Washington, D.C., 1982. (Daily News)

Gil Scott Heron was born on April 1, 1949 in Chicago, Illinois, a city that in little more than a decade would become a hotspot for civil rights activism. It wasn’t in Chicago that Scott-Heron was exposed to the revolutionary culture of the sixties, however: he spent the first 12 years of his life living with his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee. Under her guidance, Scott-Heron was simultaneously exposed to the discrimination facing the black community in the form of Jim Crow Laws, and the richness and culture of the black identity, culminating in the beginnings of his own passion for revolution. In Jackson, Scott-Heron became one of the first three black students integrated into Tigrett Junior High, and later, after the death of his grandmother and a move back to New York City, one of just five black students to attend the prestigious and private Fieldston School.

Gil Scott-Heron alongside classmates at the prestigious Fieldston Academy. (Daily News)
Gil Scott-Heron alongside classmates at the prestigious Fieldston Academy. (Daily News)

It was Scott-Heron’s propensity for the written word that propelled him to these new heights: a teacher at the public (and poor) DeWitt High School Heron attended in New York took note of the young man’s work and offered to help him get into the Fieldston Academy. At DeWitt (nicknamed “Dumb Witt” for their low test scores and graduation rates) Heron was often bored and frustrated at the lack of intellectual stimulation, but was naturally sceptical at such an offer. After two rounds of highly offensive interviews in which the directors of the program, at one point, asked how Heron would cope watching the white teens drive by in limousines while he walked to school from the subway, the young man succeeded in gaining admission (undoubtedly due to the fact that he responded to this particular inquiry by reminding the director that he, also, could not afford a limousine, and was doing just fine). Heron went on to begin his successful career by writing, of all things, detective fiction, publishing his first novel, The Vulture, by the age of 20.

Scott-Heron's first novel, The Vulture, was published in 1970 and gives a fascinating glimpse into New York City street life whilst trying to unravel the mystery of a young man murdered.
Scott-Heron’s first novel, The Vulture, was published in 1970 and gives a fascinating glimpse into New York City street life whilst trying to unravel the mystery of a young man murdered.

After finishing his secondary education at Fieldston Academy, Heron enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, following in the footsteps of his biggest influence, Langston Hughes. It was during this time from 1970-72 that Scott-Heron became interested in the Black Arts Movement, and his own art was forever changed. After these two years, Heron dropped out to pursue his own music career and publish his second novel, The Nigger Factory, an exploration of a southern university setting in the 70s and the struggle of black students against the institution.

The Nigger Factory, published in 1972, follows the struggle of black college students on a Virginia campus to fight for equality against a resistant organization, and reflects Heron's own maturation as a writer and activist.
The Nigger Factory, published in 1972, follows the struggle of black college students on a Virginia campus to fight for equality against a resistant organization, and reflects Heron’s own maturation as a writer and activist.

It was in 1970 that Gil Scott-Heron revolutionized the revolution. He met legendary record producer Bob Thiele of Flying Dutchman Records, and together they released his first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, an experimental debut into spoken word that would be hailed as the beginnings of hip-hop and rap for decades to come.

GHS5
The cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 debut album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.

The album, 14 tracks long, even markets Heron as a poet rather than a singer, and features powerful and solemn spoken-word lyrics against the backdrop of African congas. Despite being received by only a small following, Heron’s debut gained critical acclaim for its scathing social critique and sharp, blunt honesty about the hypocrisy of American life. The standout of this album, and arguably the most well-known work of Heron’s career, is the very first track, entitled: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

In this introduction to the album, Heron holds nothing back, attacking the American people’s apathetic, superficial nature and condemning mainstream television and the minuscule, vain concerns of the 1970s white American.

“Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so god damned 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.

The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people. 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.”

With these lyrics, Heron single-handedly coined what became an early slogan for the Black Power Movement: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” became a warning to Americans everywhere hiding behind Saturday night reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies and luxuriating in a society glorifying the white image. The song urges Americans to wake up and realize that the time for change had come, and that no one would be able to remain safe and ignorant behind a television set. This fight was going to take place in the homes and streets of the American people, and there would be no avoiding it or denying it any longer.

However, Heron had very specific and adament views on how the revolution should be executed. In the third track, “Brother,” he uses the term derogatorily to condemn the “would-be” black revolutionaries he sees on the street in African clothing for their hypocrisy, as they spew criticisms and judgments against other black men who may dress differently or are trying to get their degree, with lyrics such as:

“I think it was a little too easy for you to forget that you were a negro before Malcolm. You drove your white girl through the village every Friday night, while the grass roots stared in envy and drank wine.

Do you remember?”

However, Gil Scott-Heron is nothing if not an activist for equality, and he goes on to condemn superficial white “activists” in the very next track, titled simply “Comment #1.”

“Comment #1” is the track in which Heron presents his most radical views on the Black Power revolution: in the introduction, he begins by pushing back against the growing idea of the Rainbow Coalition:

“Comment #1 is the one we decided to use here this evening because it makes a comment if you listen closely on what is now being advertised in East Harlem as the “Rainbow Conspiracy” – a combination of The Students For A Democratic Society, The Black Panthers, and the Young Lords –

And this is my particular comment about that conspiracy.”

The Rainbow Coalition, as you’ll see from the article linked above, was an organization seeking to unite many different kinds of minority groups in the ongoing fight for equality, but Heron himself seems deeply mistrustful of this idea, going so far as to call it a conspiracy. His other lyrics, as he says, form his comment on why he believes uniting all races in the Black Power revolution is a bad idea, and can truly never work:

“The irony of it all, of course is when a pale face SDS motherfucker dares look hurt when I tell him to go find his own revolution.

He wonders why I tell him that America’s revolution will not be the melting pot but the toilet bowl. He is fighting for legalized smoke, or lower voting age; less lip from his generation gap and fucking in the street. Where is my parallel to that?

All I want is a good home and a wife and a children, and some food to feed them every night.

I say you silly chipe motherfucker, your great grandfather tied a ball and chain to my balls and bounced me through a cotton field while I lived in an unflushable toilet bowl. And now you want me to help you overthrow what?”

With such blunt and powerful lyrics, Heron’s anger toward young white liberals like those in the SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society, a popular activist group in the 70s, becomes obvious: he feels that white people can never truly understand the African American fight, and that young students are only taking a “four-year interest” in something that is a long-standing and deep-rooted issue for the black community. Heron mocks these white “revolutionaries” who see protesting as something fun to do on the weekend, and white “revolutions” that call for unimportant things such as the legal use of drugs or looser sexual laws, while African Americans are still fighting to simply live in peace and be able to provide for their families. This stark disparity in priorities is shown clearest when Scott-Heron graphically and violently reminds the audience of just how recent slavery actually was, and his indignation at the idea that flippant white boys looking for a cause want to take up the Black Power Revolution is vehement.

Later in this piece, Heron also brings up the idea of cultural appropriation by white people of Malcolm X and Cleaver, calling for so-called white “activists” to leave them be and stop appropriating them as general symbols of revolution. Scott-Heron maintains that these men are central, important figures to the black cause, fighting a specific battle, and to generalize them as singular symbols of rebellion is to diminish the significance of their work for the black community. This is part of the “melting pot” effect that Heron speaks out against in this piece, insisting that the revolution cannot be a melting pot, as that would ensure the complete and final dissolution of black culture and history. Rather, Gil Scott-Heron tells the world that the revolution must resemble a toilet bowl: it must be brown.

Heron’s “Comment #1” leaves us with one question, drawn from an important influence: “Who will survive in America?” This is a direct reference to Amiri Baraka’s 1970 spoken-word poetry collection, It’s Nation’s Time, for which Baraka was highly criticized, based on his assault of other minority groups. Like Heron, Baraka believed that the black revolution should remain in the hands of the black community, that African Americans were called to a higher destiny, and that other minorities and white people could never understand their trial– a radical and controversial standpoint that undoubtedly influenced Gil Scott-Heron and his work.

Check out the rest of Gil Scott-Heron’s revolutionary debut album here:

Gil Scott-Heron was a pioneer of poetry during the Black Power movement; he quite literally revolutionized the music industry and became a founding father of the rap we know today, and his legacy is still very much alive. Famous and controversial rapper Kanye West sampled Heron’s “Comment #1” on his 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, titling it after Amiri Baraka’s Who Will Survive in America, and making it the very last track to wrap up the album. A decade prior, popular hip-hop artist Mos Def also sampled Heron’s work on the track “Mr. Nigga,” off the album Black on Both Sides.

Though he passed away in 2011, Gil Scott Heron’s legacy is very much alive and well, in keeping with his own personal philosophy on revolutions:

“Revolution isn’t an overnight thing. Like some people jumped up in the sixties and said: ‘Revolution,’ and then in the next three or four years when it didn’t happen, everybody said: ‘Naa, there aint no revolution.’ Revolution is a constantly building process, a constantly developing process. Black people, all Black people, are always in a revolutionary frame of mind.”

 

Sources:

Baram, Marcus. “‘Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man’ recalls leap to Big Apple.” NY Daily News. N.p., 19 Oct. 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music/book-excerpt-gil-scott-heron-pieces-man-article-1.1979216

Chicago Metro News: “An Exclusive Interview in Players with Gil Scott-Heron.” NewsBank/Readex. 1975/11/08, pg. 16, Chicago, Illinois. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, SQN: 12B5E09AB003A428

http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=I6BB5CDXMTQ5MjU3MzMwNy44NjMyNDA6MToxNDoxNTIuMjMuMTg0LjE2Mw&p_action=doc&d_viewref=search&s_lastnonissuequeryname=3&p_queryname=3&p_docnum=7&p_docref=v2:12912DF42BF1884F@EANX-12B5E09AB003A428@2442725-12B5E09B51EAC2F0@16-12B5E09F53935A40@An%20Exclusive%20Interview%20in%20Players%20with%20Gil%20Scott-Heron

“GIL.” Gil Scott. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. http://gilscottherononline.com

Greene, Andy. “Gil Scott-Heron, Revolutionary Poet and Musician, Dead at 62.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 28 May 2011. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/gil-scott-heron-forefather-of-hip-hop-dead-at-62-20110528

Harold Claudrena N. “Deep in the Cane: The Southern Soul of Gil Scott-Heron.” Agpike. N.p., 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.

https://southernspaces.org/2011/deep-cane-southern-soul-gil-scott-heron

O’Hagan, Sean. “Gil Scott-Heron: the godfather of rap comes back | Interview.” The Observer. Guardian News and Media, 06 Feb. 2010. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/feb/07/gil-scott-heron-comeback-interview

Sisario, Ben. “Gil Scott-Heron, Voice of Black Protest Culture, Dies at 62.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 May 2011. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/arts/music/gil-scott-heron-voice-of-black-culture-dies-at-62.html

Author: Kaitlin Barker

Arts and Sciences Deans Office

3 thoughts on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Gil Scott Heron and the Power of Poetry”

  1. There are a lot of connections between Gil Scott-Heron and Archie Shepp, the person I focused on for my topic. They both worked with Bob Thiele to produce and record their music. In addition, Shepp started to use spoken word in his music during this time of his career. Perhaps there was some influence and idea flow between the two people during the Black Power movement.

  2. This is a very well-researched and interesting post! I unfortunately had not heard of Gil Scott-Heron before and I wonder why 🙁

    It’s incredible to see hip hop artists today still referencing Scott-Heron’s music in theirs, like they are continuing the conversation and developing not only black civil rights memory but also black arts memory.

    It’s interesting to see him implicitly interpret black power in his music and books, but I’m also confused how he defines it. He seems to use the word ‘revolution’ constantly so I feel like he advocates a militant and violent revolution? But it’s not very clear to me. His rage is very clear though, in his lyrics. The emotional intensity is something I’ve noticed that heightened during the black power movement, much more emotional than MLK’s non-violent approach.

Leave a Reply