In ‘The Revolution will not be televised’, written in 1970 and recorded the following year, Gil Scott-Heron envisions the African-American uprising. ‘You will not be able to stay home, brother, you will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out, you will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip out for beer during commercials, because the revolution will not be televised.’ Now celebrated as a forerunner of rap and hip-hop, the song’s call-to-arms refrain is delivered with power, rhythm and classic African-American cool, ‘the revolution will not be televised.’ Fifty years on the revolution is being televised and black people can watch at home because for the most part it is being conducted on their behalf by white people.
Scott-Heron’s song illustrates the extent to which the African-American movement has since been usurped by the progressive white left. Well may the African-American people feel that they have found an unlikely champion because champions of their cause the progressive whites have become, diminishing it in the process. The energy and character that Scott-Heron’s song evokes has been diluted by a sea of white faces and voices pursuing a wide-ranging progressive agenda. ‘There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock news and no pictures of hairy armed women liberationists,’ he sang, but no. The revolution has become a progressive white event, corporatised by woke organisations and repurposed for the broader global platform.
There has been resistance to the involvement of the white progressives. Soon after the uprising began there were calls for them to take a back seat. ‘Dear white people, all you ever do is talk – now shut up,’ wrote coloured writer, Yolisa Mkele, in The Times on 9 June. In the Washington Post on 4 June white columnist Molly Roberts concluded her advice to her fellow progressives with ‘a radical idea: maybe instead of thinking all the time about what we could do or what we could say or how we could participate loudly, we should try to participate a little more quietly.’ And actor Kevin Bacon conceded ‘it’s a good time for old white guys like me to shut up and listen.’ But the white noise has not abated. Scott-Heron called on his brothers and sisters to take to the streets, but what’s the point. May as well stay home and watch on tv.
This is one of the ironies for Scott-Heron’s song. The revolution has been wholly dependent on tv. ‘There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay,’ he sang, but this revolution would never have started without the phone video, then broadcast on tv, of a policeman ‘shooting’ George Floyd with his knee, which is instantly re-playable. ‘There will be no pictures of you and Willie Mae pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run or trying to slide that colour television into a stolen ambulance,’ but we have seen that too, with vision of looting by both black and white. With every detail caught on film, it is a revolution the world has been able to experience vicariously from their lounge rooms. The word ‘dog’ or an image of a dog does not bite, it is said. Words and images of ‘revolution’ and ‘BLM’ certainly do, all due to television and associated media.
But if he was alive today I think Scott-Heron would have been mostly pleased with the fact that the revolution is being televised. He might have thought the tv screen did not convey the raw power of the occasion, particularly as it showed white faces summoning their best fury, and white fists raised at the end of tentatively-extended arms. He might also have lamented the complete absence of the sardonic humour that is intrinsic to the African-American character and which is woven through his song. Whilst watching the whites on tv, that is, he would have detected a quality that is incompatible with humour, and would have seen that the only glimpses of comedy the whites provide are unintended. But otherwise he can only have been happy with the graphic wall-to-wall coverage of the revolution, and if he had been watching in Australia he would have been especially gratified by the coverage of the ABC, with its condoning of the violence, its encouragement of more, and its open hostility to the popularly elected conservative government of the day. The only matter that would have confused him is the fact that that broadcaster is funded by that same government.
But the ironies in this revolution abound. The activism of the progressive whites patronises the African-Americans insofar as it infers they cannot fight their own battle. It displaces them from their own movement, and white hegemony, rather than being overturned, is seen to be reaffirmed. It is a revolution that has come to be characterised by its white protagonists, who act less out of humility and contrition for the past than the status associated with their new secular sainthood. Nor do they see the hypocrisy in enforcing the rules of identity politics on everyone else whilst appropriating an African-American cause to themselves. The revolution is inverted. We can only wonder what Scott-Heron would have thought he was witnessing if, watching on television, he saw the footage of white people screaming into the faces of black policemen and women calling for their jobs to be defunded.
Long may his song be celebrated in African-American musical heritage despite the movement it advocates having been colonised by the progressive white left. In fact, they should by rights be calling for its cancellation. It glorifies burglary, endorses drug-taking and beer-drinking and perpetuates a negative African-American stereotype. But maybe that would be a case of the pot calling the kettle white.