Great political poems (No3) The Revolution Will Not be Televised

For the past couple of nights I’ve been staying up late watching the protests in Egypt, live on Al Jazeera. As I watched various cities go up in flames I was both fascinated and appalled. It reminded me in some ways of the coverage of the first Gulf War. While conflicts as far back as the Vietnam War had been televised, the Gulf War was the first one that received almost blanket coverage on the growing 24 hour news services. With the protesters in Egypt gaining momentum, this poem seemed an appropriate one to review.

Radical poet Gil Scott-Heron was almost the definition of the 70s angry young man. To be fair though he had a lot to be angry about. Nixon’s Americas was a very strange place to be, with the horror of the Kent State Massacre fresh in everyones’ minds and the Vietnam War still raging.

In a country where everything was becoming increasingly sanitized and pre-packaged, “The Revolution will not be televised” is partly a call to arms and partly an acknowledgement that there was an alternative, but that it wouldn’t happen if people just stayed at home staring at their TVs. As the final line of the poem states “The revolution will be live”. In a way he was right and what’s been happening in Egypt and Tunisia is proof of this.

Of course another alternative interpretation is that the revolution did happen, just not in the way Gil Scott-Heron hoped for. The information revolution swept the world in the 70, 80s and 90s and continues today via satellite TV, Twitter and Facebook. All of these things have altered our political, social and economic world in ways we don’t fully understand yet. Not only will the revolution be televised but television was the revolution.

There is some debate over whether the work of Gil Scott Heron’s work is poetry, song or an early form of rap music. I’ve also regarded it as poetry but that’s just me. You could probably write a small book listing the cultural references that crop up, and I suspect that you really have to be an American alive in the 1970s to fully appreciate all of the ideas and concepts he spits out. For instance who these days remembers Green Acres or Rare Earth? (Not me, I had to Google them). Anyway’s it’s still a great poem.

Here is the poem in full:

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,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat
hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie May
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,
or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.
NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32
or report from 29 districts.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being
run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the proper occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock
news and no pictures of hairy armed women
liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.
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, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live

For a full list of other political poems I’ve analysed click here

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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5 Responses to Great political poems (No3) The Revolution Will Not be Televised

  1. Indeed, “revolution” is not a television show that one can passively watch as a couch potato on the sidelines for entertainment.
    Great poem, Ashton.
    Btw, oh yes, there are those of us who remember these shows. And it is possible to watch Green Acres and other shows referenced from the time period. They still appear on television stations needing filler. And I think at least Green Acres can be found on the likes of hulu–it offers a certain comic sense that could easily be ‘modernized’.

    • I share an office with a colleague whose Phd was on Marxist revolutionary theory. I’ve always been a bit suspicous of this as it seems to focus on the idea of an intellectual elite or vanguard leading the revolution. I much prefer the idea of a genuinely popular evolution led by the people.

      I’ve just watched bits of a Green Acres episode on Youtube and it seems like a classic fish out of water comedy. A bit like the Beverley Hillbilies in reverse. I like the way that the farm is clearly on a set and they haven’t even tried to make it look like it’s really outdoors.

      • Has your office-mate ever experienced a ‘revolution’ in more than book theory? It is one thing to intellectualize a revolution and quite another to “pull one off” in reality.

        As for Green Acres–LOL–even as a child I knew that the show had nothing to do with ‘reality’ but rather served as a platform for comic exchange for the sake of laughter. Just how far could that seemingly witless woman push that seemingly sophisticated man? Depending on your sense of humor and state of mind it can be a real hoot.

  2. ps.
    Some audio and visual to illustrate your text.

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