What’s that song? was the question on viewers lips when the trailer for the film Black Panther was making the rounds earlier this year. That distinct bass voice and sound of urgent warning was of course “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron. Listen for him just after the one minute mark and just beyond it here:
Jumping out of the track and off the screen like a thunderbolt (between slices of “BagBak” by Vince Staples), for younger listeners, the moment could’ve been their introduction to a classic. The nearly 50-year-old song, with references to white supremacy, media-hype, and politics gone astray seriously could’ve been written yesterday: Granted some of the references may be archaic, even arcane, but if you were to substitute the names of products and politicos of the past with those from the present, the song and its message, for better and for worse, would remain the same.
Being as April 1 marked what would’ve been Scott-Heron’s 69th birthday, and this month is National Poetry Month, Jazz Appreciation Month, and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (for whom Scott-Heron assisted in the creation of the national holiday), it seems a good time to revisit the storied career of an American artist who worked in not only jazz and poetry, but on the page and on the stage, and in rock and soul, with (reluctant) ties to hip hop and DJ culture: A standalone artist with a whole lot to say, this is just a piece of Scott-Heron’s complicated story.
Born in Chicago and raised in Tennessee and The Bronx, Scott-Heron has been held in a warm embrace by appreciators of sound from the release of his very first album (Small Talk at 125th and Lenox) until his last: I’m New Here was a modern mash-up of informal spoken word, samples and soundscapes — his 2011 comeback after a 16 year gap, though he died not long after it was released. Here’s a taste of “Me and the Devil” (which again, brought Scott-Heron to a new generation of viewers and listeners when it was used in the series, How To Get Away With Murder).
What happened in between his debut and final recording were 15 albums, countless tour dates and a full life of an artist, lived out loud. Self-described as a bluesologist, he was well-versed in jazz shapes, blues tropes, and the sound and feel of Harlem Renaissance poetry. His prime literary influence was Langston Hughes: He chose to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania precisely because it was the poet’s alma mater and he went on to receive an M.A. in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. He saw his first novel, The Vulture, publish when he was just 22.
As for musical inspirers, when he was 15, Scott-Heron saw Stevie Wonder perform at the Apollo Theater and again two years later, while he was enrolled at Lincoln. The appearances left a forever impression on him, as he recalled that second appearance in his memoir, The Last Holiday:
“His playing, singing, and songwriting had expanded exponentially while he still retained the unrestrained joy that exploded like a physical force from his opening notes and lassoed everyone within reach of his frequency of freedom,” he wrote.
By the time Scott-Heron got to recording his own debut album, the arrangements were largely barebones, voice and percussion, including the first issue of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” For his second album, Pieces of a Man, overseen again by respected jazz producer, Bob Thiele, he stretched to meet the accompaniment of Ron Carter on bass and Hubert Laws on flute. The album also marks the reappearance of keyboardist and flautist Brian Jackson whom he’d met as a student at Lincoln.
“Home Is Where The Hatred Is” is a considered classic concerning the heroin crisis that was sweeping the nation, as is the more fleshed out rendering of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” This definitive recording of the song and the album in its entirety would set the course for Scott-Heron’s career as an artist with an agenda of message music.
Following with the virtuoso hard-hitting requiem, “Winter In America,” it was now Wonder who was dropping in on Scott-Heron’s shows. In addition to providing the inspiration for countless hip hop treatments (some call it one of hip hop’s year zero tracks), Scott-Heron often disavowed the claim. So much hoopla later, he sent a “Message to the Messengers” in the era of gangsta rap to set straight the next generation on the facts of his intentions. Within its first couple of lines and throughout, he self-references “The Revolution…” while also slipping in plugs for anti-violence, anti-mass incarceration, and respect for elders and women.
The admonishment did not appear to dim his popularity with ever more emerging hip hop artists: Scott-Heron is a perceptible influence on emcees diverse as Kanye West, Common, Talib Kweli and Yasmin Bey among many more. Perhaps not coincidentally, Scott-Heron shares an April 1 birthday with Boots Riley, the politically active artist who uses music, books and film to resist and promote meaningful change, too.
Music on its own is indeed a valuable and necessary tool for enlightenment, enjoyment and entertainment. But occasionally, the force of its educational message, the passion of the artist, and the political process align in a way that is truly profound. Perhaps there is no case greater than the one to be made for the pairing of Stevie Wonder and Scott-Heron who turned the dream of creating a federal holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into a reality. In 1980 Wonder with the Congressional Black Caucus, set the process in motion. By the fall of that year, coinciding with the tour in support of Wonder’s album Hotter Than July (which included “Happy Birthday,” his now beloved tribute to Dr. King), Wonder with Scott-Heron as the opening act hit the road which provided the opportunity to collect the thousands of signatures necessary to proceed with legislation. Though at first some states resisted, the third Monday in January is a federal holiday.
“Somehow it seems that Stevie’s effort as the leader of this campaign has been forgotten,” wrote Scott-Heron in his book, and I agree: It is indeed strange but true that this detail is often overlooked. And here’s another weird, often underlooked piece of history: Wonder and Scott-Heron were performing on the tour live in Oakland, California (with special guests Kirk Franklin and Carlos Santana) the night John Lennon was murdered. The musicians learned of the event from a backstage television, leaving to the job to the singers (in the pre-Internet age) to inform the crowd of what had happened: The artists were working for peace when one of their own was shot down — a neverending story, it seems.
It seems among casual listeners that Scott-Heron’s contribution to this story, like Wonder’s remains overlooked too. No, music was not able to create the peaceful revolution civil rights leader King dreamed of 50 years ago; and yet, two musicians played a very big role in the perpetual memory and message of his life and death. That fact alone might be enough for an artist, but along with his catalog of resilient songs and the adaptable message of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” it would appear Scott-Heron’s true legacy is still in process of being fully discovered. Long may his jazz, poetry, and jazz-poetry rage on as your own sonic explorations begin. Here’s one to start the adventure: “We Almost Lost Detroit” explores potential environmental terror and nuclear disaster, just in time for another annual April occasion, Earth Day. Yep, Gil Scott-Heron covered the globe.
Denise Sullivan is a California-based author of books on music including Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues and Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors. Follow her @4DeniseSullivan and at her blog.
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