The Revolution Will Not Be Televised:
Musician and Poet Gil Scott-Heron Speaks His Mind

"The nation is in a coma, distracted by a whole lot of garbage." -- Gil Scott-Heron

On April 1st, one of the forefathers of hip-hop, poet and bandleader, Gil Scott-Heron will turn fifty years old.

Heron perceives his role as an artist whose duty it is to raise the consciousness of his listeners by making them aware of the worst problems of their time.

His comic insights and sensitive concern consistently balance the anger within his art.

Ever since he was 19 (and published his first novel, The Vulture), Scott Heron has communicated anger and compassion.

The son of a professional soccer player from Jamaica and a librarian, he began to absorb modern black poetry while still a student at Pennsylvania's Lincoln University and later as he earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins.

Other writings during his college period were the saga, The Nigger Factory, and a collection of poetry, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.

While at Lincoln, he also met multi-instrumentalist Brian Jackson and the other original members of the Midnight Band and made the transition from performing spoken work to music. He was the first artist signed to Clive Davis' Arista Records, he scored a few minor hits - "Johannesburg," and "Winter in America" were two of the most known. Others, that people still talk about are "Pieces of a Man, "Free Will" and the composition "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised".
Heron's style has always been to name names, call for action and describe the true nature of political repression in America.

Dissatisfied with the music industry, he took a long leave of absence until this last year when he launched a collaborative reissue effort with TVT Records, forming his own Rumal-Gia imprint and reissuing most of his catalog, long out of print in the United States.

The self-proclaimed "bluesologist" is a mentor to such hip hop figures as Public Enemy's Chuck D., A tribe Called Quest's Ali Muhammad and Spearhead's Michael Franti.

In an interview I asked him where he got the idea of using percussion with street-rap-type poetry and later adding a rhythm and blues band?

HERON: I developed my style almost by instinct. I started to evaluate black American history and came to the realization that, along the way, people have filled in what would otherwise have been gaps. To that end, I feel I've played a small part in my own era. Traditionally, you see, all dances, speeches and ceremonies in Africa took place accompanied by percussion. Stuff like the poetry of the Greek, Homer, that we read in school, was accompanied by a lute. It was a song. The Psalms in the Bible were sung...So, like, this style is something that comes from a long way back. Our presentation is a combination of all of those.

RESER: Where did you gain your political insight?

HERON: Just living in America. I was raised in Tennessee and was one of the first three black children to attend all-white schools there. I didn't at the age of 12 have much of the philosophy behind the things that had receded which made that possible. But I saw, during the integration trip, why it was necessary because all the experiments that we just speculated with at the black school were carried out in the white ones. You could put our library in a goddamn phone booth compared to the amount of space and materials that were here at this previously-separate-but-by-no-means-equal school. And, from that point on, the idea of why these things were necessary was no longer a question in my mind. For having gone and seen the absolute unequivocal difference between these tow schools gave me an insight into the fact that there was no way I could successfully compete with a chronological peer for a gig, a position or anything else because I was carrying this anvil around in my head from not having the facilities and not having the stuff education consists of. I suppose from that point on when somebody started to talk about why these things were necessary and why they were absolutely essential to the growth and progress of our community, they couldn't get any argument out of me...Like from having seen it for one thing - being there - is sure enough another way. And, having been there, when the subject came up, I was no longer shy about drawing parallels to show people who had not been there what being there was like...

RESER: Why should an artist talk politics?

HERON: Well, you know it's the difference between here and Oz. You know, if you're going to take somebody to Oz, you're going to have to describe that very vividly to get them there. And the truth is that what we're talking about is's what's going on, you know. If you run into someone who doesn't want to talk about it, why? So I'm just saying that all I'm doing is talking about life. If it was something else, I don't think that many people would come to hear me say it. So, rather than wonder why I do what I do, I wonder why other people do what they do.

RESER: Why are there times when art contains more of a political and social message than others?

HERON: The truth is, with the times in general, those sort of ideas and music come in and out of fashion with programmers and media people. But it just proves how nebulous their thing is in terms of what's happening. Because they give you the new skirts from Paris. You know there ain't nobody from over here going to go to Paris to get no skirts. They should give you what you need. Like some music from over here about some shit that's happening over here. I think that's based on however media people are getting kicked in their wallet or in their ideological asses. That's how they respond in terms of the attention they give to things that are a concern to the community. Because, basically, they have a corner on the hedge in terms of how people are programmed to get information. So, like, they're never going to suffer just because handfuls of different people from different communities find out that they're not where the information is. So, like, they're never going to suffer just because handfuls of different people from different communities find out that they're not where the information is. Like, they're always going to sell X number of papers a day or X dollars per TV spot or radio ad. You see, it's only when the issues at hand start to get to them. Less money for this kind of crap, no editorial space for you. And no this or that and the other. Then they realize and say, "Wait a minute. What's happening with the art?" And they ask, "Why aren't the artists doing more about this?" So, like it's a cycle that runs into itself every once in awhile. Like when the Vietnam war was happening. Like when there was more activism concerning civil rights and human rights. Folks who were at the heart of these ideologies felt a certain pressure in order to promote you. Like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary - this, that and the others. They give you them when the ideological questions close to their heart are being assaulted. When there are things that go off into special segments of the community, still a part of the fragment of the community. But less identifiable as a part of the media's perimeters of ideology and what they are all about, then it's no play. Let me tell you something. We did this tune one time called "New York City" and there's a Latin section in it and the point of that is that in the city there are millions and millions of really hip people but their story ain't on the air. So you think of New York City and you think of muggers and this and that and what ever. And it's like and such want to keep their business to themselves. They don't want to be known for anything. The publicity that people give violence and folks hurting each other even though they obstinately cover it because it's an aberration. It becomes the symbol of something. Instead of one out of every six or seven people in San Francisco being gay, it becomes six out of everyone. Because, like, if there's somebody gets their ass kicked that's one thing. But if somebody beats up somebody gay, it's like fuckin' Sugar Ray Leonard with the rap they give you. So, like even people who are fighting to be something normal by the very acknowledgment of the fact that they're fighting to be normal. It's like an overly-big magnet. Like, in terms of what it is they're all about and it becomes magnified all out of proportion. I don't see in a society that's really interested in justice, liberty and freedom and shit, why we've got to go over there and mess with those people in other countries. So, I'll be wondering what's going on. In other words, the thing that is hot with me most is that I'm insulted that they would say this shit to me and expect me to not say, Hey!

RESER: Who inspired you?

HERON: I can't quote a whole lot of political figures as people that I follow. People like Paul Robeson, even though he wasn't a politician. You see, when I start quoting people I'm fond of, it's people like Langston Hughes. Like Richard Wright. People who used art as a means of expressing their feelings about the conditions of their lives and their communities.

RESER: What role do you think Malcolm X played compared to Martin Luther King?

HERON: They were religious leaders, ministers. Over here, you see, if you're just into radical politics, they leave the police to do something to you. If you're a minister, they kill you themselves. We had more ministers killed then we did radicals. That's not a coincidence. Other people may think it is, but I'm saying that people like Vernon Jordan, James Meredith and Martin Luther King - these people were conservative by most estimates and had to be dealt with by guns and stuff. I believe that. Malcolm X had a different constituency. His ideology concerned a breaking-away from white America in order to find your own identity, your own self-respect and your own pride in community. Martin Luther King felt that the only way black people were ever going to get the tools in order to do that was through integration where everybody would have the same opportunity to have education, to shop, to think, to pray, to do whatever. I think that both men were at basically different stages of the same idea. That King may have felt as strongly as Malcolm did about the fact that our community could separately survive on its own energies, but he felt as though in order to get to that stage they had to have the opportunity to mix freely with whatever advantages are out there for people.

Phil Reser