The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott-Heron in performance at New York's Blue Note Jazz Club in 2009. Click on the photo to go to the associated Guardian article on his comeback. Photograph: Terrence Jennings /Retna Ltd./Corbis

Many thanks to PLoS blogbuddy Steve Silberman, author Rebecca Skloot, historian Dr. Blair L.M. Kelley, local Southern studies friend Ayse E., and NPR’s Michele Norris for sharing with us on Twitter their reminders of the late spoken-word poet, novelist, composer and musician, Gil Scott-Heron. Click on their names for a sample of their tweets.

Gil passed away yesterday in New York City at age 62. His obituary in The New York Times can be found here.

I’m within a standard deviation of the age of my colleagues above but unfortunately did not share the depth of their connection to the artist. Thinking back, it’s kind of sad that I grew up 16 miles from Gil Scott-Heron doing his best work but didn’t quite grasp the context and content of his genius then. I’m even more embarrassed because I consider myself a musician, albeit a bit of a hack.

I only began truly learning about Gil Scott-Heron last year while laid up in bed with pneumonia. His first new work in over a decade had just come out, I’m New Here, and I was gripped by his opening track, “On Coming from a Broken Home (Part 1).”

When asked about this piece last year in a great interview by Andy Gensler in The Daily Swarm, he said:

[I]t’s a poem from “Now And Then” which I wrote for my daughter. My youngest daughter is 11 years old and wanted to know something about her grandmother. By the time she got old enough to write me letters and draw beautiful pictures, her grandmother had died. So I decided to write about her grandmother and great- grandmother.

The awareness I’ve gained over the last three years while engaged at a historically-Black university (HBCU) led me to recognize his own three years at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, the first public HBCU. Following in the footsteps of his inspiration, the poet and 1929 Lincoln graduate Langston Hughes, it was there that he met Brian Jackson, his flute-wielding collaborator on his very best work.

Although he left Lincoln for his music and to finish a book, Gil later earned a master’s in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.

This weekend will no doubt bring us many learned reflections on the artist and his contributions to culture that continue today in the hip-hop movement.

But I am at least old enough to recognize almost all of the cultural references in his 1970 classic, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Here is an excellent video showing images of those references over the song.

And, in his own words, his interpretation of this cultural touchstone:

Gil Scott-Heron (1949 – 2011) – Requiesat en pace.

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