“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.”
–Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised”
Godfather of rap. Poet. Activist. Bluesologist. Jazz musician. Throughout his life, Gil-Scott Heron uneasily inhabited, but did not quite define, these labels. Instead, he transcended simple categories, forging his own identity and remaining committed to his beliefs and unique sound. Until his untimely death on May 27, 2011, Scott-Heron both inspired and challenged listeners with his brutally truthful words and heart-wrenching honesty about his struggles with alcohol and drugs.
Born April 1,1949 in Chicago, he began his journey as a teenager in New York, eventually attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (alma mater of Langston Hughes, who greatly influenced Scott-Heron’s work). After two years, he left to pen two novels, The Vulture and The Nigger Factory. However, he learned that he could make an even bigger impact with his other great love: music. Along with college friend, musician Brian Jackson, they composed pieces that reflected the civil rights movement, but incorporated poetry, jazz, and blues. Their first album, 1970′s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (also featuring Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on congas and David Barnes on percussion and vocals), warned listeners not to be seduced by mass media.
The album’s most famous track, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” urges people not to “plug in, turn on, and cop out”; staying home, becoming anesthetized through relentless commercials, mind-numbing sitcoms, and negative African-American stereotypes, is no longer an option. “The revolution,” Scott-Heron concludes, “will put you in the driver’s seat.” Accompanied by a relentless conga beat, Scott-Heron’s passionate reading still resonates, and the subject still applies today, despite some dated references. A full band version, featuring bassist Ron Carter, surfaced on Scott-Heron’s second album, Pieces of A Man. While not as stripped-down as the original, the fierce beat (emphasized by Carter’s throbbing, rhythmic playing) and sizzling flute punctuate Scott-Heron’s anger and fire.
While he may be best known as a spoken word artist, Scott-Heron also possessed a voice that, while not perfect, still conveyed emotion and soul. In Alec Wilkinson’s excellent profile of the artist, published last year in the New Yorker, he quoted Carter’s assessment: “He wasn’t a great singer, but, with that voice, if he had whispered it would have been dynamic. It was a voice like you would have for Shakespeare.” After another album, 1972′s Free Will, Scott-Heron embarked on one of his best Jackson collaborations, 1974′s Winter in America. While the album sold well in jazz circles, the disc did not generate mainstream buzz until club DJs began spinning “The Bottle,” a funky track that called listeners to the dance floor.
While the song may have possessed a great beat, its lyrics remain most striking. Scott-Heron sings of alcohol abuse, abortion, poverty, and family disintegration. The first verse describes a young boy feeling the effects of his father’s addictions; the second tells of a woman’s descent into the bottle. Because her man is in jail, she turned to alcohol. “She’s out there on the avenue, all by herself/Sho’ needs help from the bottle,” he sings. When a preacher tries to help her, the lyrics suggest that her addiction has completely consumed her: “She cussed him out and hit him in the head with a bottle.” The final verse spotlights a doctor “helpin’ young girls along if they wuzn’t too far gone to have problems.” But after “defenders of the dollar eagle ” apparently shut down his practice, “now we watch him everyday tryin’ to chase the pigeons away from the bottle.” With its brutally honest lyrics and depressing subject matter, it hardly seems an ideal fit for the clubs. However, its funky groove and Scott-Heron’s soul-drenched voice make “The Bottle” a track that remains a cult classic.
By 1975, music mogul Clive Davis had established his record label Arista. On the strength of “Revolution” and “The Bottle,” as well as his live shows, Scott-Heron became one of the first artists Davis signed to the label. Arista remained Scott-Heron’s home from 1975-1985, where he recorded nine albums. Among his more interesting works is the overlooked Reflections (1981), which includes his convincing covers of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.” He returns to the subject of the mass media’s influence on “B Movie,” a spoken word piece that indicts “Hollyweird” for “what has happened. . . in the last 20 years, America has changed from a producer to a consumer.” As always, he immediately grabs the listener’s attention right away with a provocative statement: “Well, the first thing I want to say is: Mandate my ass!”
Unfortunately, massive success eluded him due to his constant struggle with drug addiction. Wilkinson’s New Yorker article describes the artist as hopelessly addicted to crack; before that, Scott-Heron had been convicted twice for cocaine possession, eventually serving time for parole violation. Years of drug use ravaged his once-powerful voice and disturbingly altered his appearance. Although he released an album last year, I’m New Here, his artistic output had dramatically declined since the 1990s.
While addictions simiiar to those described in “The Bottle” may have ultimately engulfed him, Scott-Heron’s legacy remains. Hip hop artists and rappers like Public Enemy and Kanye West cite him as a major influence. Interestingly, Scott-Heron constantly dismissed the title “Godfather of Rap” in interviews–”I just think they made a mistake,” he told Wilkinson—and said he preferred to think of himself as a “bluesologist” or jazz musician. No matter what the label, Scott-Heron will be remembered as an independent artist who died as he lived—on his own terms.
To learn more about Gil Scott-Heron’s life and music, read the New Yorker’s 2010 piece “New York Is Killing Me,” and The New York Times’ obituary. View a fascinating BBC documentary of the poet, The Revolution Will Not be Televised, and visit his official site and MySpace Music page.