Often credited as one of the godfathers of rap music, Gil Scott-Heron didn't set out to be a singer-songwriter. He started his career as a youngster writing poetry and he got his first breakthrough writing a ghetto murder mystery called The Vulture, set in the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhattan, where he lived at the time.
But soon after the book was published to critical acclaim and modest sales, jazz producer Bob Thiele - recognising the raw charisma of Scott-Heron's vocal delivery - set Scott-Heron's poetry to music for the first time and a cult legend was born. These early recordings included The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a scything indictment of white America's blind ignorance of racial issues.
In one sense, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a list song comprised of cultural touchstones of late-Sixties America, from President Richard Nixon to sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, and, moreover, numerous glib TV advertising slogans, like "Give your mouth sex appeal" and, paraphrasing the slogan of a giant of US commercial imperialism: "The revolution will not go better with Coke".
But more than just a list of historical and cultural trivia, this song exposed the gulf of perspective between black and white at the time of writing. Talk of revolution was rife in a nation that persecuted and disenfranchised a significant fraction of its population. The nightly news was showing footage of demonstrations in the streets in which American citizens fighting for their rights were being brutalised by the police in the name of public order. And in the commercial breaks, glamourous people with toothy grins were telling the public that everything would be fine with the world if they just consumed the right products.
"We said, 'People ought to get out there and do something; the revolution won't be televised,' Gil later recalled. "A cat said, 'You ought to write that down'."
You can learn more about Gil Scott-Heron here:
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.
A high-speed combination of punk chorus and ska verse, Mustard Plug's singalong Unite and Fight is just one of a sensational 28 tracks on the Ska Against Racism album compiled by Bad Time Records in 2020 to raise funds for non-profit organisations working to improve education, opportunity and justice for black people in the USA and beyond. With a barrelling momentum and a repudiation of violent action, this uplifting song is a call to arms for those of us committed to disarmament.