Gil Scott-Heron was a composer, musician, author and poet best known for writing and performing this spoken-word track, which made its way into the cultural lexicon. Regarding the song, he said: "The revolution takes place in your mind. Once you change your mind and decide that there's something wrong that you want to effect that's when the revolution takes place. But first you have to look at things and decide what you can do. 'Something's wrong and I have to do something about it. I can effect this change.' Then you become a revolutionary person. It's not all about fighting. It's not all about going to war. It's about going to war with the problem and deciding you can effect that problem. When you want to make things better you're a revolutionary."
The lyrical delivery, funky groove and socio-political messages in this song influenced the creation of the musical style Hip-Hop. The main subject is the lack of media coverage in African-American communities.
The original, spoken word version of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" was released in 1970 on Gil Scott-Heron's debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. This first full-length record was created in collaboration with the Jazz producer Bob Thiele, who also worked with John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.
In 1971 Gil Scott-Heron and musical partner Brian Jackson re-arranged the song. Jackson jammed on the flute while warm, jazzy rhythms added depth to the previously sparse track. These elements, when added to Gil Scott-Heron's calm and intelligent vocal delivery, earned the song radio airplay across the US. This second version is the most famous and is now known all over the world.
Gil Scott-Heron wrote this song when he was 21 years old. He would perform and release several reworkings of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" in his lifetime.
The lyrics build a strong, intelligent and humorous case against American consumerism:
"The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal."
"The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner."
These words remind us that big business owns almost everything we see on television. Scott-Heron contends that if the common people were to rise to rebellion, there will be no news coverage of the event.
Gil Scott-Heron spoke on the poetry in this song: "All of those poems do not just represent me. They represent the people I know and the people I see. You have to separate the problems that effect the whole community from the problems that effect just the individual person. A good poet feels what his community feels. He feels what the organism that he's a part of feels. And one of the problems that our community was facing as a whole was the fact that we were being discriminated against and there was something that needed to be done."
The hook, "The revolution will not be televised," is so catchy and timelessly relevant that it's still often referenced in pop culture today. The title was used for a 2002 documentary about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and is also the name of a popular book by Joe Trippi.
As an anthem for African-American activism, this is just one of the many Gil Scott-Heron songs that urge all races to take responsibility for their art and communities. A more straightforward Gil Scott-Heron song on this subject is his 1994 treatise "Message to the Messengers."
This song was never a hit, which kind of proves Scott-Heron's point in the song that attempts at revolution are always suppressed by those in power. Scott-Heron never did make the Hot 100, although his song "In The Bottle" made #46 when it was covered by the group Brother To Brother in 1974. One man who thought Gil had hit potential was Clive Davis, who signed him to Arista Records in 1975. Scott-Heron's Arista releases benefited from far better promotion and distribution than his earlier work, but there were still no hits. Davis shied away from political artists from this point, focusing on hitmakers like Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys.
The female trio LaBelle did a popular cover of this song on their 1973 album Pressure Cookin'. Their version appeared in a medley with another song called "Something In The Air." The song became a concert favorite for the group, with the three members taking turns delivering the stanzas.
This song appeared in the 1990 documentary Berkeley in the Sixties. It was also used in the 1999 film The Hurricane, for comic effect in the 2002 movie Undercover Brother and featured on the soundtrack of the 2013 flick Mandela - Long Walk To Freedom.
The song is often considered a "call to war" for the revolutionary forces of Heron's time, but Heron himself told writer Rob Fitzpatrick that the song was meant to be satirical, and that its lyrics refer to a mental, not militant, revolution.
"People would try to argue that it was this militant message," Heron told Fitzpatrick, "but just how militant can you really be when you're saying, 'The revolution will not make you look pounds thinner'?"