Gil Scott-Heron :: Revolutionaries Live Forever

The brother who prophesied that the revolution won’t be televised is no more.

Many of us did not believe in his cautionary words. Some of us caricatured the concept of revolution as manifesting in fast cars and expensive elections. Those in Egypt claiming themselves to be revolutionaries even held up signs to proclaim revolution was indeed being televised. Some Iranian protesters claimed revolution was being Twitted. Indeed, during his lifetime, Gil Scott-Heron was ridiculed, neglected and relegated to a hopeless corner. After his passage, he will probably be obliterated from prospective history narratives, as our liberalized society continues to glory itself in post-racial illusions.

After all, Gil Scott-Heron was not a gem or an ornament in any literary tradition. In obituaries he will probably be called a Godfather of Rap, but he consciously distanced himself from such tags. Naturally enough, he was neither a millionaire nor a philanthropist. He was not a best-selling poet on New York Times lists either. And certainly he was not counted among Time Magazine’s most influential persons of the century. He was not a charismatic leader or evangelical preacher providing hope pills and change promises on television channels. It is critical to remember who he was not, in order that we can identify with the actual tradition and legacies of Scott-Heron.

He was never a pawn in their game. Scott-Heron, an extraordinary poet of radical consciousness never became a sale-out. Besides, he was determined, not to. He cared more for his free mind than anything else in the whole world. When he died today, he died penniless, and homeless. He was still searching for a place to call his home in a country whose consciousness he strived to influence throughout his life. Some called him a hero, some a godfather, some a genius. But none could dictate him what to write, say or express. He was as Gwendolyn Brooks called him: a “chance-taker, street-strutter, untamed proud poet, rough healer, he is his”.

The rough healer that he was, Scott-Heron had a prescription for America’s oppressed: “Free will is free mind. Free to evaluate the systems that control our lives from without and free to examine the emotions that control our perspectives from within. We have things to do for tomorrow. Our children will have to deal with all the mistakes we make today. To live in dignity they will have to erase many of the personal compromises we made. We must actively search out the truth and help each other.”

Brother Scott-Heron’s attempts at truth-seeking were exceptionally radical. They were so fundamentally trenchant that they would shame the contemporary progressives. He was unforgiving towards the lousy liberals who equate electoral systems with democracy. Voting as an act of resistance is deeply imbued in the culture of the oppressed, especially considering the long struggles on part of African-Americans, among other racial minorities, for political rights. But Scott-Heron always warned against the accompanying complicity coherently characterizing the basic fabric of the so-called free world. Every four years, the theater of the oligarchs seduce the majority masses into reposing a manufactured faith in an inherently flawed and politically illiterate, disempowered system. Scott-Heron without mincing words, declared the American democracy phony and rigged a system. He wrote:

“How much more evidence do the citizens need
that the election was rigged with trickery and greed?
And, if this is so, and who we got didn’t win
let’s do the whole Goddam election over again!”

His methods as a poet-activist were intrinsically incisive, and relied upon substantial amount of topical realisms. “The Revolution will not be Televised” is a much-cited classic in this genre, but there are less prominent works of his that are equally powerful tools of social justice struggles.

In a scathing criticism of the military-industrial complex, Scott-Heron declared Eisenhower as “politically dead” and wrote:

“The military and the monetary
Get together whenever they think its necessary
They have turned our brothers and sisters into mercenaries
They are turning the planet into a cemetery.”

Peace is a merely wishful thinking if the efforts towards attaining peace are not made with levels of ferocity usually reserved for war preparations and escalations. Scott-Heron was never the one to subsume under prevailing doctrines of war hypocrisies that positioned peace as a status quo, wars an aberration. In fact, quite the contrary. Scott-Heron, like Langston Hughes before him, argued that war is the normative of our times, peace is simply absent from our lives.

He wrote:

“We’ve got to work for peace.
If we all believed in peace, we could have peace.
The only thing wrong with peace is that
You can’t make no money from it.
…….Peace is not (merely) the absence of war
It is the absence of the rumors of war the the threats of war
And the preparations for war.”

Unlike many pacifists, Scott-Heron was not delusional about the prospects of peace. For him, “peace ain’t coming this way, we’ve got to work for peace.” To that extent, he expressed staunchest oppositions against imperialistic tendencies. If Reagan did not escape his radar those days, Obama would not have today. Both of them were architects of war against Libyan peoples, among others. Scott-Heron lambasted America’s war-mongering obsessions in no uncertain terms –

“We hounded the Ayatollah religiously,
Bombed Libya and killed Qadafi’s son hideously,
We turned our back on our allies, the Panamanians
Watched Ollie North selling guns to the Iranians
Witnessed Gorbachev slaughtering Lithuanians
So we better warn the Amish, they may bomb the Pennsylvanians.”

Political poetry aiming towards social justice was the crux of Scott-Heron’s relentless, powerful, and unwavering declarations. His poetry did not follow rules, did not clamor for awards, or literary reviews. His poetry was anti-poetry. His was satire, radical satire, turning the world upside down, turning the world we have come to know through corporate media upside down, turning the world as we would like to believe in through our normalized selves upside down. There is no “good old days”, Scott-Heron announced. Those who want to experience the “good ole’ days” are the ones who mock the movements for social justice. They are the ones who decry the progresses made on the basis of absolute rejection of the halo that zealously protects the heritage of the days gone by. Those that want the “good old days” back declare everything that clamors for change as necessarily evil. Scott-Heron in his “B Movie The Poem” wrote-

“Civil Rights. Gay Rights. Women’s Rights. They’re all wrong! Call in the cavalry to disrupt this perception of freedom gone wild. First one of them wants freedom and then the whole world wants freedom! Nostalgia. That’s what America wants. The good old days. When we ‘gave them hell!’ When the buck stopped somewhere and you could still buy something with it! To a time when movies were in black and white and so was everything else.”

Scott-Heron had no illusions about the ghastly past that the racist liberals and conservatives alike have been wishing for. Sure, America had its golden days in the past in its harvests, and economy; but the golden days were white days, days of the nobles and the lords, of the capitalist pigs, of an extremely limited America, the days when the black folks would not dare mingle with the elites. Sure gas prices were low and the average American household had savings and a house. But the racial minorities were not owners of either their houses or their businesses. America did not belong to all. Neither does it belong to all, even now. And that is why there is a need to reverse the psychology of slavery and servitude, and there is a need to destroy any association of fancy and glory with the collective memories of the “good old days”.

What is even more depressing about today is that the good old days Scott-Heron despised is alive and well. American power continues to prevail as brutally as it did during the cold war era. And the power trip is embraced by the people, the electorate, without much opposition, as it is sugar-coated with the Hollywood cliches. Be it Kennedy, Reagan or Obama, there is a style to the substance in the packaging of war machinery. There is a Marlboro effect. Scott-Heron said the military tune of American war on countries that need to be silenced is the tune of “Macho Man”. America wanted to eliminate Qadafi during Reagan and Bush, and now its the wish of President Obama. Scott-Heron wrote, our Presidents are likely to quote from Hollywood: “Tall in the saddle. Like ‘Riding on or off into the sunset.’ Like ‘Qadafi, get off my planet by sunset.’ More so than ‘He died with his boots on.’”

Even as American imperialism is taking over the world, and still aiming Qadafi in a Reagan-isque manner, there is a parallel revolution that is going on, and that is not being televised. Like all revolutionaries, Scott-Heron was an optimist, one who had undying desire to showcase the untold struggles. Revolution begins with the heart, and it is the duty of the revolutionary to acknowledge the unsung protagonists of the undercurrent. He wrote, “There is a revolution going on in America/the World; a shifting in the winds/vibrations, as disruptive as an actual earth-tremor, but it is happening in our hearts. A change as swift as blackening skies when the rains came, as fresh and clear as the air after the rain. The seeds of this revolution were planted hundreds of years ago; in slave ships, in cotton fields, in tepees, in the souls of the brave. The seeds were watered, nurtured and bloom now in our hands as we rock our babies…There are bitter winds born in the knowledge of secret plans hatched by Western Money Men that backfired and grew out of control to eat its own…No one can do everything, but everybody can do something. We must all do what we can for each other to weather this blizzard. Now more than ever all the family must be together, to comfort, to protect, to guide, to survive because…there is a revolution going on in America/the World.”

As much as his poem reminding us that the revolution will not be televised is indeed truer than before, beloved late brother Gil Scott-Heron’s message that the revolution is going on at the same time is equally relevant a reminder. And the poet might have departed us, but the revolutionary is still alive in spirits…

“Don’t give up,” he said. “It’s time to stop your falling. You’ve been down long enough. Listen to the spirits calling! Remember the spirit of brother Malcolm X. And know that you can leave all your mistakes behind, The day you really make up your mind…”

(Saswat Pattanayak, 2011)


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