One of the most memorable gigs that I have ever been to was Gil Scott-Heron at the Brixton Academy. Drinks, drugs and prison had ravaged both body and voice. But he could mesmerize like few others. He possessed a sharp, sardonic wit, an emotional palette of exceptional richness, and an ability to allow your spirit to take flight. He was undefinable, unique, inspirational.
And nothing, perhaps, better expresses those qualities, and his attitude to life and to politics, than the lyrics of the song that came to define him, ‘The Revolution Will not be Televised’:
You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and drop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised…
The revolution will not be right back after a message
About a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom,
a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
The revolution 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 was all too often and lazily dubbed the ‘grandfather of rap’, a label he himself fiercely rejected. ‘I don’t know if I can take the blame for it’, he once acidly told an interviewer. He was equally lazily called ‘the voice of black culture’. He was no more just the voice of black culture than Bob Dylan was the voice of white culture. He was, like Dylan himself, one of the most important voices of contemporary culture. Full stop.