You know that the spoken word poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" by Gil Scott-Heron left its mark on America because the title's become a commonplace. For instance, I heard a television reporter making reference to the poem during the so-called "Arab Spring" protests of this year as a point of commentary. He said, "Apparently the revolution will be televised."
The title of Gil Scott-Heron's poem has become a cultural reference point. It's a saying with which people are familiar, but many young people don't know when they hear it that it is an allusion to a poem. So, I wanted to honor his memory today with that point of recognition because yesterday I heard that he died.
Poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron has passed on at age 62. His death, according to the New York Times, was announced on Twitter and later confirmed by his publisher. His work was a part of my coming of age in the 70s, but the last time I mentioned him on this blog was after President Barack Obama's inauguration. At that time poet E. Ethelbert Miller was wondering why no one was comparing Elizabeth Alexander's poem "Praise Song for the Day," written for Obama's inauguration, to GSH's "Winter in America." Miller's observation was rather astute.
The NYT piece, which calls GSH "the voice of Black culture," also says:
Mr. Scott-Heron often bristled at the suggestion that his work had prefigured rap. (“I don’t know if I can take the blame for it,” he said in an interview last year with the music Web site The Daily Swarm.) He preferred to call himself a “bluesologist,” drawing on the traditions of blues, jazz and Harlem Renaissance poetics.I never associated him directly with HipHop. I see how he could be associated with early protest rap music, but his work never popped into my head when I heard the party-like-a-fool, "on-and-on-til-the-break-of-dawn" rap that blasted across college campuses in the late 70s and early 80s. And definitely--I definitely did not associate his work with misogyny or anything that glorified a black man killing a black man, commercialized gangsta rap imagery. Maybe I thought of GSH when I heard Taalam Acey or other spoken word artists or perhaps I hear the echo of his spirit concerned for his people in Raheem DeVaugh's "Bulletproof" featuring Ludacris, but not when I hear Nelly's "Shake Ya' Tail Feather." I've never made an aesthetic connection between Gil Scott-Heron and the sexual simplicity of "shorty dropping it like it's hot."
Apparently the poet did not see a connection either. He felt rap was directed at youngsters not grown folks. The NYT's obituary says he preferred jazz.
I think I became aware of Gil Scott-Heron in the 70s because my older cousins from California would come to New Orleans for the summer and one of them was into the poet's work. I think my cousin Ricky must have played "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," which I've embedded in this post.
Somehow I was exposed to The Last Poets, too, of which GSH was a contemporary but not a member. It had to have been one of my cousins who introduced me to radical protest poetry because my mother, who exposed me to a lot of poetry, was more the Langston Hughes/James Weldon Johnson/Gwendolyn Brooks type. But maybe she was aware of of GSH also because he admired Langston Hughes as well. All I know is that when I was 13 in 1973 I was at a predominantly white boarding school, sensitive to racism, and trying to imitate protest poetry. So, his work and that of other black protest poets must have made an impression on me.
And some of GSH's work was also played on black local radio stations later. I remember hearing "The Bottle" a lot. I can't pinpoint exactly when and how I became aware of his work, but I know I was aware of it and even recall seeing him on Soul Train. His image and words stuck in my head. He said something worth saying.