Jun 25, 2021 - Politics & Policy

"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" turns 50

Gil Scott-Heron performing onstage in Atlanta, Georgia.

Gil Scott-Heron performs in Atlanta in 1977. Photo: Tony Murphy/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

A spoken-word tune that tackled police brutality, inequality, racism, consumerism, and the shortcomings of the media became an anthem a half-century ago, amid violent uprisings, from Camden, N.J. to Albuquerque, N.M.

Driving the news: With the 50th anniversary of its release, Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is being celebrated for its enduring influence on slam poetry, hip hop and the modern protest movement.

What they're saying: "Gil used to like to beat people over the head with lyrics. We were extremely dangerous," Scott-Heron's writing partner, Brian Jackson, recalls in a new Apple TV series, "1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything." Scott-Heron died in 2011.

  • "We wanted to write about what it meant to be young, Black men in America."

The big picture: The album's release came as cities across the U.S. saw Black and Latino communities in the summer of 1971 rise up against excessive police force resulting in violent confrontations.

  • People in communities of color began mimicking Scott-Heron's spoken-word style to music, helping give birth to modern rap music and earning him the title "Godfather of Rap."

Why it matters: As protests over George Floyd's killing intensified last summer, Scott-Heron's words were repeated in the streets and during virtual events. The song was blasted from vehicles during social distancing caravan marches.

Details: A writing teacher who studied Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, Scott-Heron released the album Pieces of a Man in 1971 as a follow-up to his spoke word collection, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.

  • Pieces of a Man was a traditional album with songs fusing jazz, blues and soul.
  • But the opening track, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," featured Scott-Heron reciting his poem to drums and instruments.
  • "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," he said.
  • "Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day" and the coming revolution won't be a mere performance to be aired at a later date, but "will be live."
 Gil Scott-Heron RIP mural photographed on East 12th street March 15, 2015 in New York City.
A New York City mural dedicated to Gil Scott-Heron who died in 2011. Photo: Bill Tompkins/Getty Images

Flashback: That year, demonstrators around the world were calling for authorities to release Black scholar and revolutionary Angela Davis.

  • Black and white inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York rebelled against living conditions and mistreated resulting in the most violent encounter between Americans since the Civil War.
  • In 1973, New York Puerto Rican poets founded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in a living room salon in the East Village apartment. It eventually became the epicenter of the slam poetry movement who artists regularly paid homage to Scott-Heron.
  • Actor Benjamin Bratt in 2001 reenacted in a biopic the poet and playwright Miguel Piñero's performance of "Seekin' The Cause," sometimes referred to as the Latino version of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."

What they're saying: Albuquerque's first poet laureate, Hakim Bellamy, tells Axios he often listened to Scott-Heron's tune on vinyl while growing up in Philadelphia.

  • "I actually wrote a poem that I wrote based wholly on the infrastructure and the template of Gil Scott-Heron poem, except I was talking about more like email and social media."
  • Los Angeles poet Matt Sedillo said Scott-Heron was the inspiration for his own "The Revolution Will Not Be Subsidized," saying, "It came naturally because it is so part of me now."
  • San Francisco poet laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin, author of the forthcoming collection, Blood on the Fog, said that as an undergraduate in New York he retraced Scott-Heron's early footsteps for inspiration: "I can't help but look at his technique. It's needed especially today."
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