Why you should care
Because the revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
In 1970, if you had eyes to see, you knew that the world as it had been known was aflame. Wars from Nigeria to Vietnam, street skirmishes, riots and social upheavals in the First through Third World all happened in the same year that The Beatles released their final album, Let It Be. And in New York City, where Gil Scott-Heron had just returned, the streets had already been lit up in recent years by race riots, the Stonewall riots and even the Hard Hat Riot, where largely conservative construction workers attacked young people protesting the shootings at Kent State.
Yeah, the planet had gone bananas. In the midst of all of the end-of-times agita, Scott-Heron composed 1971’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” This spoken-word poem set to music was a seething “screw you” to a status-quo culture that either did not understand or did not care that large swaths of fellow citizens were taking to the streets to make their grievances known, sometimes in the only way they knew how: by burning it all to the ground.
There will be no pictures of you and Willie Mays
Pushing that shopping cart down the block on a dead run
Or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance […]
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
Brothers in the instant replay […]
There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock news
Scott-Heron was a writer and poet first and foremost, and “The Revolution” heeded the call for poetry to move away from pure aesthetics and get back “into the street where it once was,” as a spoken, “oral message,” as poet and City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti put it. When you consider how most poems are conceived and how they’re delivered, the then-22-year-old Scott-Heron’s decision to go musical with it seems prescient. He was influenced by seeing a 1969 poetry and music performance by The Last Poets, and, like that seminal group, Scott-Heron, wicked word play intact, vaulted into history as one of the godfathers of modern hip-hop.
It may not have been an accolade he embraced, but the bluesman-poet remained an icon for younger generations. He continued to release records of his poetic performances — his last to rave reviews in 2010 — despite tangling with addiction and announcing his HIV-positive status, before his death in 2011.
“Screaming through a bullhorn could have been effective enough,” says Scott Sterling, music journalist and former editor of URB magazine, of Scott-Heron’s most well-known work. “But just standing in front of a mic, and not just chatting, but killing it? Right place, right time perfection.”