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There is something ill-fitting, discomforting about the manner in which the legendary Gil Scott-Heron’s passing has been treated by print media, particularly in Britain.

Scott-Heron was largely ignored in his lifetime by traditional media and by the mainstream in general. He had hits, undoubtedly, and his classic screed ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ has entered the pop culture lexicon almost without acknowledgement. However, until a recent revival on Richard Russell’s XL Recordings and a remix album chaired by Jamie of the xx, his cultural cache was cult – a musician whose influence far overreached his renown. Five years ago, his death would have been notable, but not this notable.

Much of it has to do with the success of his return to music – he hadn’t released a thing between 1994’s  Spirits and 2010’s sardonically-titled I’m New Here – and some is due to print journalism sourcing more and more of its content from social media. But that doesn’t quite account for everything – some of the coverage given to Scott-Heron’s death has gone beyond hagiography, effectively crediting the man with creating the entire culture of hip hop (but only the nice, positive parts, of course).

It took me a while to figure it out, but then it all made sense: Barack Obama. While the President’s standing in the world has diminished somewhat since taking office, he remains an object of utter fascination for most Europeans, particularly in the English-speaking countries. Obama swept into the UK last week, leaving for the continent mere hours before Scott-Heron drew down his final breaths in New York having just returned from his own sojourn in Europe.

It’s tempting in so many ways to link the two men’s stories: one of the greatest black musicians of all-time and the first black president of the United States. It’s attractive, but it’s a complete nonsense. The biggest offender (among many) was the Telegraph’s John McTernen, who wrote this nausea-inducing piece, “Paving the black road to the White House,” in which he stated that “the musical movement begun by Scott-Heron … could be said to have ultimately paved the way for Barack Obama to become President of the United States.”

McTernan repeats the received wisdom that Scott-Heron was the “godfather of hip hop,” an honour the musician took pains to distant himself from. It is in no way to understate the importance of Gil Scott-Heron as a musician and as a figure of inspiration to suggest that hip hop would have happened without his input, and indeed was actively fomenting around him as he played his small part in its development. This point appears to be lost on the journalists queuing up to anoint him rap music’s answer to Moses.

His music, his intelligence and his empathy had a profound effect on a generation of proud black musicians, but it’s a long, long way from the backstreets of New York to the White House. It renders Scott-Heron’s genius trivial to make such a gratuitous and nonsensical leap in logic. If there’s anything to the Obama link – and there’s very little - it’s tangible similarities in terms of their words, their manner and their moderate outlook. Though perhaps Gil had a slightly more liberal attitude when it came to controlled substances.

Listening to ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ (which was strongly influenced by the equally brilliant Last Poets’ ‘When the Revolution Comes‘), it’s impossible not to be struck by the weight of Scott-Heron’s words and the pure emotional force of his delivery. It’s propaganda at its very best.

As any student of English knows, propaganda isn’t all evil symbols and brainwashed proletariats – it can be a tremendously positive method of persuasion, of inspiration. ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ is a wonderful piece of empowerment propaganda. You can hear it in the endless repetition of the title; the relaxed, assured delivery; the careful choice of words and imagery for maximum visual impact. It’s more Malcolm X than Martin Luther King, but there’s something distinctly human about it – he even fucks up the delivery on a couple of occasions.

All analysis aside, it’s just a great example of inspirational, life-affirming musical poetry that will probably never cease to be relevant as long as intolerance and injustice – and televisions – exist. That should be sexy enough to earn him his place in history without Obama’s help, no?

Those interested in some genuinely great tributes to and memories of Gil Scott-Heron would be well-advised to check out the Guardian Music portal, in particular this piece written a couple of years before his death by friend Jamie Byng.





wabbit
06.03.11
really really great Dave, and people say that automatically here but this is one of the best things I have read on the site. Hopefully he gets more recognition on the site.

Electric City
06.03.11
great write up dave, as usual

StreetlightRock
06.03.11
Props for this one Dave.

Knott-
06.03.11
The revolution will be marketed.

psykonaut
06.03.11
fantastic article, thanks

Fluorine
06.03.11
I really do agree with all of this, but there's another problem.
I'm very tired of seeing the words "The Revolution will not be televised" plastered everywhere. The complaint about media diminishing the work of Scott-Heron has merit, and I think a lot of it comes from faux-grieving/honoring by people who don't really seem to know or understand the man or his music, grieving that is only done because it is now in vogue to do so. The fact that "The revelution will not be televised" has become the catchphrase for the current frenzy of sudden Scott-Heron loving seems to emphasize the problem. Does no one know anything else he's done? Is he nothing more than this song?

JAV
06.03.11
Obama killed him

Deviant.
06.03.11
Excellent work Dave

Iluvatar
06.03.11
I feel sort of like an asshole saying this, but is this really something I, as a white whatever male, am supposed to care about? IT's being made out like I should, but I can't bring myself too.

Satellite
06.03.11
"an honour the musician took pains to distant himself from"

should be "distance"

really, really interesting read here

NaomiNeu
06.03.11
Dead cool Dave.

RosaParks
06.03.11
Is that the guy that was doing the Who Will Survive In America thing on Kanye's last album?

robertsona
06.03.11
@rosaparks yes

North0House2
06.03.11
The man was a legend.

eggsvonsatan
06.03.11
That is ridiculous. I had no idea that the story was being told way.

SeaAnemone
06.03.11
I had never heard anything from him besides "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" before his death (though I knew he was an important guy and stuff), so it only makes sense that his biggest song would be most-heralded as his anthem or whatever by the media, Fluorine.

Obviously, they know he has a backstory/more work but the song serves as a powerful "catchphrase," so it makes sense.

eggsvonsatan
06.03.11
*That way

Acanthus
06.04.11
That was a really good, enjoyable read. His music wasn't my cup of tea, though I believe that you have many valid points about the media and propaganda.

AtavanHalen
06.04.11
"I feel sort of like an asshole saying this, but is this really something I, as a white whatever male, am supposed to care about? IT's being made out like I should, but I can't bring myself to."

What the actual fuck.

Iluvatar
06.04.11
Person who had no affect on my life at all and didnt on 60% of the people who are "caring" lives. Idk, I just find it all overwraught.

Electric City
06.04.11
john's actually got a good point

AtavanHalen
06.04.11
Being a cunt for cunt's sake is so 2008.

liledman
06.04.11
"I feel sort of like an asshole saying this, but is this really something I, as a white whatever male, am supposed to care about? IT's being made out like I should, but I can't bring myself to."

yes you sound like an asshole, even if there are a lot of those "oh no not gil scott-heron! he was the guy who did that thing and revolution and black yeah..." people.

i dont see why you would feel differently about this than any other celebrity death, where the media (online or print, mainstream or otherwise) paints a glorified portrait of whoever has died, and makes it seems very important for you to know everything about them. thing is, this guy does deserve praise and recognition, even if its unfortunately after his death.

Electric City
06.04.11
the thing is in many cases, as dave points out, its misrepresenting or distorting his impact, thus disrespecting his life. which is kinda lame.

Iluvatar
06.04.11
not being a cunt, not even say i actively dont care, my point is that i feel the same way about this as any other celebrity death, when everyones saying i SHOULD care about this.

not being a cunt for cunts sake, but nice try atavan.

Iluvatar
06.04.11
need to not post drunk on pages where there is not edit button

Enotron
06.04.11
i don't see any inherent obligation to care about his death.

it's unfortunate and he was a cool dude, that pretty much sums it up for me.

liledman
06.04.11
i think in musical circles, the loss of any great musician is sad and always gets a fair amount of attention. theres always going to be annoying and unintelligent people distorting or misrepresenting the impact of someone, but those people would have always been unintelligently spouting shit whether they died or not. larger audience means more stupid people.

someguest
06.04.11
yeah if you don't like an artist that died you're annoying and unintelligent



liledman
06.04.11
thats misrepresenting and distorting what i am saying.

Iluvatar
06.04.11
he wasnt responding to you really i thinkl

SeaAnemone
06.04.11
I might be wrong but I think he's referring to atavan's comments...

... rightly

someguest
06.04.11
a "great" musician is entirely opinion

if I thought an artist who died' music sucked, I'm not going to create a facade admiring their career for their death



AtavanHalen
06.04.11
"need to not post drunk on pages where there is not edit button"

Officially disregarding everything you've said.

liledman
06.04.11
@someguest

i agree. there are quite a few 'good' musicians who become 'great' once they have died... i think this case would have been different if he died 30 years ago, but after a long career like his, it doesnt have the same effect.

Meatplow
06.04.11
good write up

unfortunately, there are two spaces between "1994’s" and "Spirits" in the third paragraph

you call this professionalism

Iluvatar
06.04.11
I was not drunk when I made the original statement, Atavan

Irving
06.04.11
Hats off to you Dave. This is why you should review even more.

ilikeforests
06.05.11
This site needs more write-ups like this.

plane
06.06.11
"Being a cunt for cunt's sake is so 2008." - AtavanHalen

plane
06.06.11
I respect Scott-Heron a great deal, as a musician or otherwise. He will be greatly missed, and though it's always a little disconcerting the way people amass to honor a celebrity in death when they cared little about him or her when they were alive. I'll blame white guilt, like "Crash" and Michael Jackson before him.

fromtheinside
06.06.11
Great write up Dave, best I've read in a while and your closing paragraph really sinks this in. Will probably do some exploring based off this

Activista anti-MTV
06.07.11
Excellent writing Dave! I enjoyed the last two paragraphs for their clarity and no-bones message. I enjoyed the video very much, but I would've missed out on your write-up had I taken your advice!

Activista anti-MTV
06.07.11
Oh, and

THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED

Iluvatar
06.07.11
Aw fuck yeah Activista

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