Nearly everything that American poet / vocalist Gil Scott-Heron and keyboardist Brain Jackson recorded together between 1971 – 1980 spoke of the personal struggle against tyranny. Not only did they create the finest soul-jazz music you will ever hear on albums like; Pieces of a Man, Winter in America and The First Minute of a New Day. Their music gave a voice to the pain and resiliency at the heart of “resistance”. These are the stories many Americans don’t want to see and hear; a truthful examination of oppression in the “land-of-the-free”. There is nothing forced or compromised about this music; the songs unfold naturally and expand with heart-breaking detail. Gil Scott-Heron articulating the inhumanity behind the economic abandonment and social alienation caused by systemic racism and classism in society.
The music is a dose of radical-poetry; words and music that create a precious honesty about a repressive society. Woven between the soulful melodies is the radical foundation of revolution. The realization that the time for reform has past and the only solutions will come in the form of collective action. Heron brings us to this revelation through the deep reflection and love for humanity within his music. A “love” that seeks to radicalize our thinking. Just as musical innovations challenge the way we hear music; radical thinking challenges the way we understand race, society & culture (& politics). And once you hear and see clearly, there is no turning back;
We have been taken over by the season of ice
Very few people recognise it for what it is
Although they feel uncomfortable
Very few people recognise the fact that somehow the seasons don’t change.
You start to, you start to relate everything to the season of ice
And so your dreams become frozen, and your ideas become frozen
Your promises become frozen in this
Frozen days, and frozen nights
Frozen aspirations and frozen inspiration
There’s something wrong, I mean, there’s something wrong
On December 13 1975, comedian Richard Pryor hosted Saturday Night Live with Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson as the musical guests. Pryor had been invited to host SNL but had one firm demand; Pryor insisted that Heron and Jackson be invited to perform. Initially, the powers-that-be at SNL refused. They wanted a more commercial musical guest that would attract a larger audience. SNL wanted to take advantage of the fact that Richard Pryor was the most popular comedian in the country. But Pryor was unwavering and threatened to withdraw for the show. His refusal to appear on SNL would have been a significant embarrassment for such a “hip” television show. Eventually, SNL relented and invited Gil Scott-Heron and Brain Jackson to perform two songs. The first was the anti-apartheid, Johannesburg. Performed immediately after the shows first sketch with Pryor;
They tell me that our brothers over there are defying the Man
And we don’t know for sure because the news we get is unreliable, man
Yes, I, I hate it when the blood start flowing
But I’m glad to see resistance growing
Although they had already gained a positive reputation among music fans and critics, Gil Scott-Heron and Brain Jackson were hardly household names. Heron was mostly known as a jazz-poet; performing improvised spoken-word poetry with only sparse rhythm or beats as his musical backing. It’s a poetic form most people would associated with the American beat-poets of the 1950s, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. And a style that would later be adopted by early members of the hip-hop community who had a more political or social message. A community heavily influenced by Heron’s own poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”;
The revolution will not be right back
After a message about a white tornado
White lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom
The tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was first recorded in 1970 for Heron’s solo album “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox“. A version recorded with only the accomplishment of a Congo drum. Heron took the poem’s title from a slogan used by the Black Panthers and other black-power organizations. And the lyric uses language similar to popular television commercials, advertising jingles and mainstream news as ironic examples of what a revolution would not be or do. Heron was inspired to write the poem by the proto-rap group “The Last Poets”; a group of revoluntionary poets that considered themselves the “last poets” before the real, (possibly) violent revolution comes to the streets. Their track, “When the Revolution Comes” is another highly regarded and influential song/poem amoung the hip-hop community.
The performance of Johannesburg on SNL was inspired; giving late-night America a chance to see the two musicans in their radical and soulful prime. But it was Richard Pryor’s intervention that made the appearance possible. SNL was forced to accept the inclusion of their radical message only because Pryor risked the wrath of a major corporate television network. The story of their performance is an important reminder of how much ground has been lost over the last 40 years. For all the talk of freedom across the American political spectrum, radical and revolutuonary voices are now nonexistent.
Before his death, Malcolm X was the preeminent critic of American civil-rights and foreign policy. A national spokesperson who had the stature to demand changes from the liberal political class. Malcolm X was a true revolutionary who regularly participated in public debates at universities and public television; and he used the power of his voice to force concessions from the system. A voice that was silenced by political assassination. In the aftermath of his death, there was a profound silencing of all radical reasoning and ideas; a cultural and politcal death occurred in America. And worse of all, that policy of ”silencing” has been expanded and exported.
The killing of journalists Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia in 2018 and Shireen Abu Akleh by Israel in 2022 are two recent examples of how political assassination is used by client states of the empire. There are many others. And we don’t need to look very far to see how revolutionary voices are dealt with in the U.S; both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden live with exile or imprisonment for exposing the crimes of the empire. All of these actions taken with complete immunity from prosecution or criticism. The fairytale of “freedom and justice for all” is revealed to be nothing more than meaningless propaganda. Much has changed across the cultural landscape since 1975; with radical and critical thinking limited to those independent writers that refuse to be compromised; author Chris Hedges, professor Cornel West, Matt Taibbi or the brave people at the Grayzone, Black Agenda Report or reporter Richard Medhurst
Unfortunately, we lost Gil Scott-Heron in 2011. But he continued to make important music until the very end of his life. When he was imprisoned multiple times in the early 2000s, Heron refused to allow the jail-time prevent him making music. Always resisting the forces that de-humanize a forgotten population. That’s no small achievement. Because it is the resistance of the artists and creators that is most needed today. Their resistance can be the spark of revolt. Brain Jackson remains active. Even recording a new album in 2022; “This is Brian Jackson”. Jackson’s warm voice a reminder of Heron and a partnership that was more the musical. The cultural and politcal message of their music continues to influence the next generation of revoluntionary thinking.
Resistance is not only about battling the forces of darkness. It is about becoming a complete human being. It is about overcoming estrangement. It is about our neighbor. It is about honoring the sacred. It is about dignity. It is about sacrifice. It is about courage. It is about freedom. It is about the capacity to love. Resistance must be become our vocation – Chris Hedges