Subversive Bands, Part Three: Gil Scott Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

Gil Scott Heron is an American treasure. His music is largely not played on the radio anymore, and this is an accident of time and attention that needs to be remedied. Gil Scott Heron gave voice to many of the wonderful elements of freedom that symbolized the Black Power Movement and the Civil Rights Movement fought to establish for all Americans.

Through his music, Gil Scott Heron gave voice to the spirit that was dying in the streets, after the FBI, white supremacists and too-busy American middle class people moved on from opposing the plight of the poor, the minority and the underclass in this country.

This is the third installment on the Subversive Bands series from Historydojo. Please see the first installment here. Find the second installment here.

Gil Scott Heron reminds us not to forget. He sings to us to remember, and through our memory of what was dared by those who came before we can still see the way to be free. Being free is what this whole country is about, really.

Gil Scott Heron was an American treasure.

The anthem most remembered by Gil Scott Heron is “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” the message was radical enough that the FBI investigated him for being a subversive.

The song is wonderful and needs to be heard today, more than ever.

The lyrics to the song are below. I will attempt to explain some of the connections and references in the song, so that you can appreciate the significance of his genius.

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 televised

Here the reference to “skag” is a slang term for heroine, which was washing through the ghettos and back alleys of America after the Civil Rights Movement. It was an effective way to neutralize the activism of the 1950’s and 60’s. Years later, it would be revealed that the Federal government and the CIA were importing drugs into the inner city for exactly this purpose. [1]

The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruption
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
Blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John Mitchell
General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat
Hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary

The revolution will not be televised

Xerox is of course the major copier corporation that was a darling of the business world in the 1970’s This company symbolized the new modern business environment, because copiers were an amazing thing back then.

Today copiers are more a source of wasted time and frustration, so it gives us context to see how frustrating and irritating life must have been when copiers were a source of relief.

The 70’s were no picnic!

The song continues…

The revolution will be brought to you by the Schaefer Award Theatre and
will not star Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
Thinner, because The revolution will not be televised, Brother

There will be no pictures of you and Willie Mays
Pushing that cart down the block on the dead run
Or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance
NBC will not predict the winner at 8:32or the count from 29 districts

The revolution will not be televised

The references here to the movie stars Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen and the cartoon character Bullwinkle give us a time frame for the song.

Today the references could just as easily be for Michael B. Jordan and Scarlett Johannsen, and the cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants.

He references “the nubs” being removed by a new razor, a claim made by Gillette in the 70’s. Pushing the cart down the block and sliding color TV’s into stolen ambulances are references to the Watts riots that were broadcast on TV.

Read the FBI files on Gil Scott Heron here. Yes, he had an FBI file…

The desperation and anger of African Americans being displayed as criminality fed into white bias against African Americans and justified their white flight into the suburbs. [2] Heron is explaining to us all how these divisions are sown by corporations and media outlets, either knowingly or unknowingly.

Heron is being cynical, referencing popular culture as a distraction from the reality of political freedom, or the denial of it. He is calling out to us to wake up from our televised halcyon daze and see that modern culture is lulling us into passive acceptance of superficial dramas over real political change.

Our obsession with personal appearance, weight loss, celebrity and cable news “alerts” are all examples of how mass media deludes the people into seeing a false reality and distracts from seeing the real oppression all around us in the form of social control. [3]

Mass media deludes the people into seeing a false reality and distracts from seeing the real oppression all around us in the form of social control.

This is when the song really picks up steam.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
Brothers in the instant replay
There will be no pictures of young being 
Run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process
There will be no slow motion or still life of 
Roy Wilkens strolling through Watts in a red, black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the right occasion
Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and 
Hooterville Junction will no longer be so damned relevant
and Women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day

The revolution will not be televised

Kwame Ture

Here Gil Scott Heron references Roy Wilkens, director of the NAACP in the 1970’s. Wilkens was seen as impotent in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, as any leader might when following the legacy of men like Martin Luther King , Jr. and Kwame Ture.

References to Dick and Jane recall a popular book of the day, used to teach young white children how to read in school.Heron jokingly applies a slang term about sex, “getting down with” to this reference to highlight the simplicity of Dick and Jane, and how education insulates students from the reality of their world in favor of an idolized view of the world.

Instead, he urges black people to look into the streets, “for a brighter day:”, than in the textbooks provided by a system that encourages passivity and loyalty to a system that dis-empowers African Americans throughout history.

Black People will be in the street looking for a brighter day.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock News
and no pictures of hairy armed women Liberationists and 
Jackie Onassis blowing her nose
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb, Francis Scott Key
nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash
Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth

The revolution will not be televised

In this stanza, Heron runs through a list of popular artists that were singing at the time. This is a jab at the corporate take over of music that occurred after the turbulent music of the 1960’s. The radical young activists who attended Woodstock and the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967-68 were now parents, with mortgages and money to listen to music in their homes, and were courted by companies looking to profit from carefully presented and controlled artists, rather than the organic artists of the decade before.

The revolution will not come from careful corporate music groups, Heron declares.

He was right.

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 germ on your Bedroom

a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl

The revolution will not go better with Coke

The “white tornado” was a slogan for the household cleaner Ajax, and the term white lighting ins slang for home made liquor, or moonshine. The rest of the references continue in this same vein, commenting on how advertising distracts us from the real hardships of racism and inequality by solving our household chores and making our lives easier through consumerism. Gil Scott Heron’s message is that consumerism will steal our freedom by lulling us into a false sense of security.

The Lie: Racial Injustice does not go better with soda pop.

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 a national treasure. He was a real patriot. He was a patriot because he spoke up about the danger that surrounds us, conspiring to steal our freedom. He warned us against the false prophets of consumerism and celebrity. Today, more Americans are aware of the political belief of Kanye West than can even name their elected Representative.

The revolution has not yet come.

When it does, it will be covered over with news alerts and cable news coverage of salacious misrepresentations and attacks upon the character of those who lead it.

Gil Scott Heron warned us.

We cannot pretend we did not know.


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Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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