When Gilbert “Gil” Scott-Heron first told America in 1970 that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” after having written it in 1968 at age 19, he literally set the stage for what would become part of the musical and poetic soundtrack for revolutionaries worldwide. And he didn’t stop until four decades later.
Having said that, I’ll now tell you 25 things you (probably) didn’t know about Brother Gil, some of which I learned from his memoir, “The Last Holiday,” published in 2012:
1. He was born in Chicago on April 1, 1949.
2. His father was Jamaican soccer star Gilbert “The Black Arrow” Heron, also called Gil.
3. Gil’s mother was an opera singer and teacher whose father Robert “Bob” Scott actually named her Robert, although she was better known as Bobbie.
4. After his parents divorced, Gil was raised from age 18-months by his maternal grandmother, Lily Scott, in Jackson, Tenn. He described her as a refined and religious woman who was pivotal in creating the man he became.
5. Miss Lily, as she was called, loved gospel music and arranged for little Gil to entertain her friends by playing gospel on a broken-down piano she had bought for him. And she hired a neighbor to teach him to play. By the time he was eight, he found himself attracted to what he was hearing on a local blues-oriented radio station in Memphis. Although he couldn’t really appreciate what he heard, he liked it. Accordingly, he began to mimic it on his piano- but only when his grandma wasn’t around, because she was no fan of the blues.
6. It wasn’t just music that Miss Lily brought into his life. It was also Black consciousness. She introduced him to the literary artistry and social activism of Langston Hughes, whose work would become a major force in Gil’s life.
7. After his grandmother passed away in 1962 when he was 12, his mother came to Jackson. A year later, the two of them moved to NYC into a Bronx apartment. At the neighborhood DeWitt Clinton High School, Gil excelled, primarily in writing courses. As a result, one of the English teachers was so impressed that she got an interview for him at the elite Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, a prosperous section of the Bronx. He was accepted on an academic scholarship but was disappointed to discover he was just one of five Blacks in a class of 100.
8. Upon graduating, he enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He chose that school because it was where his hero Langston Hughes had attended.
9. It was at Lincoln in 1969 where he met the Last Poets and told member Abiodun Oyewole that he was so moved by their rhythmic revolutionary poetry that he wanted to “start a group like you guys.” He did not join this historic spoken word and percussion group but did blossom as a musician and activist, beginning in his days at Lincoln when he hooked up with fellow student Brian Jackson and formed the Black and Blues band.
10. He wrote two provocative and insightful novels, “The Vulture” and “The N-gger Factory,” the former published in 1970 and the latter in 1971.
11. He earned a master’s degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University in 1972.
12. He taught Creative Writing at what was then Federal City College before his music career became his exclusive focus.
13. He started recording with small labels, and things expanded in 1975 when he was signed to Arista Records, making him the first artist ever on that mega-label.
14. He headlined as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live- and that was at the insistence of Richard Pryor, the show’s guest host.
15. He has performed with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Miles Davis.
16. Also, he toured in the early 1980s with Stevie Wonder after replacing the terminally ill Bob Marley. He and Stevie led the successful battle to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday by raising awareness and fomenting activism around the nation in Stevie’s “Hotter Than July” tour in 1980-1981.
17. The legislation establishing the MLK holiday was signed into law in 1983. Gil’s memoir- “The Last Holiday”- takes its name from this landmark action.
18. When he was offered a big payday in 2010 to perform in Tel Aviv, he was asked by pro-Palestinian activists not to support the Zionist form of apartheid that was just as evil as the South African form he so powerfully condemned on his classic “Johannesburg” track since 1975. He responded as expected by refusing to support Israeli oppression, thereby refusing profits over principles.
19. He listed his influences as- in addition to Langston Hughes- John Coltrane, Otis Redding, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Huey Newton, and Malcolm X.
20. In a span of four decades, he enlightened, activated, and entertained the public with 15 studio albums, 11 compilation albums, nine live albums, and one collaboration album.
21. Since his passing, XL Recordings has released two additional albums, “Nothing New” and the 10th anniversary edition of his final album, “I’m New Here” with bonus tracks. The company also released albums by artists Jamie xx and Makaya McCraven, who reworked the music of “I’m New Here.”
22. Hip Hop artists love and respect Gil. In fact, The Roots, Queen Latifah, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, A Tribe Called Quest, Blackalicious, and even weird Kanye West performed with Gil, sampled Gil, and/or remade some of Gil’s songs. Chuck D of Public Enemy said “… we do what we do and how we do because of… [Gil].”
23. His music is vibrantly relevant today, which is why you can hear “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Whitey On The Moon,” “Me and The Devil,” and other classics on TV programs and in Hollywood films such as Power, Scandal, Black Lightening, Homeland, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, and a Black Panther trailer. Log on to gilscottherononline.com to view trailers and ads featuring his work, including the promo for the 2016 Jesse Owens biopic, “Race” featuring Gil’s poem “Running.”
24. In 2012, he posthumously received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award accepted by his heirs. Two years later, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
25. Interestingly, in 2005, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was listed by the Library of Congress in its National Sound Registry because it met the library’s high standards as “... a rich, diverse and enduring source of knowledge to inform, inspire and engage... [the American public’s] intellectual and creative endeavors.” Wow!
Gil became an ancestor on May 27, 2011. But he remains alive as long as his hits like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Johannesburg,” “The Bottle,” “Angel Dust,” “Winter in America,” “Save the Children,” “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” “Pieces of a Man,” “H2Ogate Blues,” “Bicentennial Blues,” “Whitey on the Moon,” “Tuskegee 626,” “95 South,” and many others remain alive.
You can help his revolutionary music and message remain alive by supporting his estate through purchasing his music, videos, and books that are available at numerous pertinent websites and by logging on to gilscottherononline.com for updates on the latest offerings.
You can also keep his music and message alive by tuning in to his 71st birthday celebration featuring his music, videos, and greetings from his son Rumal Rackley on April 1 at 8 p.m. via Facebook Livestream on the Facebook page of yours truly, Michael Coard.
Although the revolution will not be televised, it will be livestreamed!