What rap could have been—and still could be.

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Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott-Heron has been called the godfather of rap. To listen to this album is to understand what rap could be.

Using the spoken word mixed with music, humor, anger and genuine outrage at the status quo, Scott-Heron delivers powerful messages that rail against ignorance and injustice. And no one gets away unscathed, especially in the title track, the best piece on the album. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a call to arms for African-Americans to step up and take part in “looking for a brighter day.” It attacks corrupt, uncaring government, racism, apathy, white liberals and opportunistic African-Americans alike. Most of all, though, it is a brilliantly biting indictment of a shallow, consumer-driven society and the media that both feed it and feed upon it.

Other tracks carry strong messages too. No Knock speaks out against the Nixon-era use of “no-knock” raids on political radicals; Black Panther leader Fred Hampton died in a no-knock raid. Whitey on the Moon questions the financing of this endeavor in light of rampant poverty right here on Earth. And Brother challenges “would-be Black revolutionaries” to stop posturing and start delivering:

Show that man you call an Uncle Tom just where he’s wrong.
Show that woman that you’re a sincere Black man.
All we need to do is see you shut up and be Black.
Help that woman, help that man.
That’s what brothers are for, brother.

All of which brings me back to what rap could be. Yeah, a lot has changed since the 1970s when this music first appeared. But unfortunately, a whole lot is just the same. How many songs do we really need about bling and violence, bitches and hos? With few exceptions, rap music has become like Irish music for me, one long, monotonous song cut up into song-length pieces.

Scott-Heron himself has called on the new generation of rappers to speak for change rather than perpetuate the current social situation, and to be more articulate and artistic: “There’s a big difference between putting words over some music, and blending those same words into the music. There’s not a lot of humor. They use a lot of slang and colloquialisms, and you don’t really see inside the person. Instead, you just get a lot of posturing.”

All this said, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a wildly uneven album. In fact, it’s almost like two completely different albums in one, with more conventional songs outnumbering the uniformly excellent spoken word tracks. A couple of the songs work well too, most notably The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues and Pieces of a Man. But most are earnest, heartfelt, unfortunate exercises in bad 70s poetry.

All that said, though, the title track alone is worth the cost of admission.

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2 Responses to “What rap could have been—and still could be.”

  1. nextthing Says:

    i feel u, i love Gil-Scott
    http://nextthing.wordpress.com/

  2. Donald Says:

    Ever feel kinda of down and out and don’t know just what to do?
    Livin’ all of days in darkness, let the sun shine through
    Ever fell that somehow, somewhere you lost your way?
    And if you don’t get help you won’t make it through the day
    You could call on Lady Day!
    You could call on John Coltrane!
    They’ll wash your troubles, your troubles away

    I can hear it, I can! 🙂

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