More poem than song, Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg's 1956 "Howl", or Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues". It is the liner notes to a generation, a relentless stream of cultural references against hand-beaten drums.
The message of the song is the elusive nature of political culture in Nixon's America, and the inability of the mainstream to capture the real heart of the people. None of the trivialities of pop culture will matter, because "black people will be in the street looking for a better day". Buried in the humour is a subversion: "There will be no highlights on the 11 o'clock news." When the revolution hits, it will be uncontainable.
Scott-Heron has been called the "inventor of rap". In 1983, he sang, "I said what's the word/Tell me brother, haven't you heard/From Johannesburg?" a year before the Special AKA scored a hit with "Free Nelson Mandela". In a recent interview he spoke of the costs of this fame:
We were not able to play anywhere we wanted to. Our records were taken off the shelves for quite a while. But since I had most of them, I wasn't trying to buy them anyway.
After drug problems and imprisonment, and nearly 40 years since "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", Scott-Heron has returned with a new critically acclaimed album.
Next: Redemption Song.
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