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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Revolutionary commentary from the early 70s (2/2)

Gil Scott-Heron took on a decidedly different perspective from the Last Poets in his response to "When the Revolution Comes."

In 1970, Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets began "When the Revolution Comes" by positing that some of us would watch said revolution unfold on television, slack-jawed but non-responsive, disengaged. The possibility for revolution is more than there, but it isn't registering with the masses that would make it happen. Combined with the structural biases that hamper support for revolution on a large scale, the poem presents a gloomy outlook on the United States not only from a Black perspective, but from that of anyone striving for social justice and equality.

Gil Scott-Heron thought differently. A proto-rapper (sometimes called its godfather) whose work left an indelible impact on what would become hip hop and the American music scene at large, Scott-Heron opposed the very idea that the revolution would be something viewable from a screen. He answered the Last Poets with his own spoken-word piece, aptly titled "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," in which he illustrates his title largely through a series of rejections of the social climate and popular culture of his time. His premise sounds simple enough, but the references he makes inform his other statements and his greater concept of what a revolution is.

On "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," Scott-Heron deals in denials. "The operative word throughout the piece is "not," and he makes that clear from his very first line: "You will not be able to stay at home, brother." From that point on, every "not" has an extra weight to it, regardless of whether or not Scott-Heron emphasizes it in his delivery (which he often does). I find it fascinating that such a common, monosyllabic word can be so powerful, and I guess it took me this piece to remember how heavy "not" can be.

With the second line — "You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out" — Scott-Heron begins to weave his web of cultural references. A skewing of Harvard professor and LSD advocate Timothy Leary's "turn on, tune in, drop out," the line makes Scott-Heron's reference clear while also bending it to criticize those who will attempt to stay on the sidelines of the revolution. In contrast to the Last Poets' stance, Scott-Heron insists that the revolution inherently involves all of society, and that attempting to stay on the sidelines is not simply negligent, but dishonest.

Scott-Heron litters "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" with other interesting configurations. The revolution "not be[ing] brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercials" references made-for-TV productions and their frequent corporate sponsorships, but it has a further effect because of the nature of the sponsor Scott-Heron cites. Xerox being the biggest name in photocopying may imply that the programs it sponsors are essentially copies of others, alluding to the material's lack of originality and substance. In a later stanza, the placement of Diahanne Carroll's character of Julia in the same breath as Bullwinkle reflects the belief that Julia was an unrealistic character, one who (key for Scott-Heron's viewpoint) did not accurately reflect the reality of Black life.

The mention of Julia segües nicely into Scott-Heron's view of the revolution's origins and purpose. In one of the piece's biggest shifts in tone, he avoids using a negatory statement when he says that "Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day." He holds the potential impact of a grassroots revolution by and for the Black population so highly that he disrupts his poetic flow to deliver the statement, eschewing "not" and "no" for the first time in the entire piece as he relays his affirmation. The passage additionally reveals that Scott-Heron has the same idea about the revolution's cause and its originators as the Last Poets — unsurprising given his similar social position and his being inspired by the group to start his own poetic endeavors — but differs in his view of how the revolution will function. The revolution won't be on a screen, but "will be live." On-the-ground action and activism is the only path that has the ability to change minds on a large enough scale to leave an impact. Furthermore, the focus won't be on those attempting to divide or distract from the revolution's purpose, but on the people most ardent toward seeing it through.

There's also another facet to Scott-Heron's final statement. In a clip posted on YouTube in 2010, a year before his death, he noted that the revolution being "live" meant it started in one's own mind. This very different understanding of revolution speaks to the fact that, as large-scale of a social movement a revolution may be, it starts with a single person's vision, and it takes convincing individuals to adopt the cause for it to grow. The revolution starting in the mind means that individual has to realize for themself that they're either a) on the wrong side of the fight, or b) on the right side, but not seeing the results they desire. That's an understanding and a moment within people that can't ever be adequately captured on a TV screen, let alone through any form of media.

So between the Last Poets and Scott-Heron, which of them got it right as we look back over a half-century later? It's a tough call, because I resonate with aspects of both perspectives, but my own beliefs coincide a bit more with Scott-Heron's. The Last Poets may be right that some will sit idly by as it consumes them, but in living through the revolution one will become part of it on one side or another, regardless of whether or not they act. If the revolution is to come, it will have to be live, as Scott-Heron relayed. The only question is if the revolution will come and be strong enough to be live for enough people to matter.

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