*The first time I heard Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” I was sixteen years old. It was summer 1971, Richard Nixon was President, Americans were protesting in the streets against the Vietnam war and the U.S. Supreme Court, in order to end segregation in the nation’s public schools, was about to rule in favor of busing.
Earlier in the year, Marvin Gaye had addressed the war by releasing his now-classic “What’s Going On.” But for the most part, Black America had been jamming to apolitical dance floor burners like King Floyd’s “Groove Me” and Rufus Thomas’ “(Do The) Push and Pull.”
And then came “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Except for The Last Poets, a late sixties collective of black poets and musicians who recorded polictially/socially charged prose, I’d never heard spoken word. Coming out of my AM radio, Scott-Heron’s deep, authoritive voice sounded like thunder.
Unlike “What’s Going On,” Gil’s debut recording wasn’t about Viet Nam, but the battle of civil rights going on right here at home. I didn’t know what he meant when he said the revolution wouldn’t be televised, but the notion sounded “heavy,” and Gil seemed angry enough. I was intrigued.
However, it was a singing Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where Hatred Is,” released the same year, that turned my head around. For me, the most startling feature of this grim tale regarding the pain and strife of a junkie is that, in the song, the bread crumbs lead back…home.
Indeed, years before the word dysfunction became a catch phrase, Scott-Heron had artfully proclaimed that home isn’t always a source of love and well-being; sometimes, it is a den of soul-searing emotional impairment. For some people, home, not the streets, is where the hatred was.
I was never sure whether Scott-Heron’s song was autobiographical, but considering his documented struggles with cocaine in the latter years of his life, I imagined him to be familiar with the subjects of two of his most popular compositions, “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust.”
Gil Scott-Heron, who passed away at the age of sixty-two in New York City (from causes undisclosed) on May 27, 2011, was an artiste who used his voice as a poet, singer, songwriter, activist and author to bring attention to the social/cultural plight of America and the world.
During the first half of the seventies, with such albums as “Pieces of A Man,” “Free Will,” “Winter In America,” “The First Minute of a New Day” and “From South Africa to South Carolina,” Scott-Heron, along with collaborating songwriter/musician Brian Jackson, seamlessly fused jazz, soul and funk, in the process lyrically capturing the pulse of the times.
Because he started out performing spoken word and included it in his live shows even after establishing himself as a singer, Scott-Heron is often referred to as the “Godfather of Rap.” He didn’t appreciate the moniker.
The recipient of a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from John Hopkins University, Scott-Heron felt that rap generally perpetuated the very mores he decried in his songs and poetry. Though revered by the hip hop community–his music has been sampled by its artists–Heron cordially urged rappers to take up a musical instrument (he played piano and guitar), study music and give thought to spewing lines about more than material things and sex.
I thought it nothing less than cosmic that Scott-Heron would leave us two days after Oprah Winfrey’s television show ended its iconic 25 year run and the same month Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed on orders of America’s first black President, Barack Obama.
Here’s why: while the medium of television certainly did its part with its dramatic, unvarnished broadcasts of the sit-ins, speeches, rallies, riots, marches and beatings that characterized the sixties civil rights movement, it was that singular component of Black America’s metamorphosis–the emotional yearn and determination that could not be physically choked off by a rope or stilled by the assorted miscarriage of justice–that would produce the likes of an Oprah Winfrey and a Barack Obama.
Mere news cameras couldn’t capture on celluloid or video the relentless spirit of Black America’s perseverance to overcome. That was Gil Scott-Heron’s calling.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].