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BLACK MUSIC MONTH: THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED

According to a full-page ad in Billboard, the self-titled debut album by The Last Poets sold over 300k. While it isn’t surprising that the album sold well in response to the political climate of the time, it’s astonishing given the fact that it had no airplay and a nonexistent marketing budget. With song titles like “Run Nigger,” “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution,” and “Wake Up Niggers,” and lacking the sales force of a major label, one wonders how people heard about it at all. The explanation lies in the Billboard ad, which claims its stellar sales were achieved by “word of mouth.” Additional ad copy implies that everyone who bought the LP played it for someone else—who then bought it and played it for someone else, and so on.

Poet/songwriter Gil Scott-Heron was certainly among those who heard the Poets, on the way to becoming a legend in his own right. A student at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania—mainly because his hero, writer Langston Hughes, had enrolled there in the ’20s—the young wordsmith was transfixed by the Poets’ 1969 performance at Lincoln. In 2010 Last Poet Abiodun Oyewole told The New Yorker’s Alec Wilkinson; “After the gig, he came backstage and said, ‘Listen, can I start a group like you guys?’”

Those who only know Gil’s seminal “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” from the full-band version on his second album, 1971’s Pieces of a Man, will be surprised by his original rendition. Appearing on his debut set, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, the primary take finds Gil reciting his broadside accompanied only by drums. The stark, bare-bones nature of the recording reinforces the urgency of the lyrics.

The words evolved between Gil’s 1970 and 1971 recordings, due to the contemporary nature of the piece, which referenced key social, political and cultural issues. Timothy Leary’s slogan “Turn on, tune, in, drop out” was converted to “Plug in, turn on, cop out.” Name-checked are Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell, actors Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen, and TV sitcoms Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies (among the myriad pop-cultural references). It would make sense that a year later Gil was still fine-tuning the names and references.

And those familiar with either version will recognize, upon hearing the The Last Poets’ “When the Revolution Comes,” its clear influence on Scott-Heron’s work. “When the Revolution Comes, some of us’ll probably catch it on TV,” goes the Poets’ piece. “When the Revolution Comes, transit cops will be crushed by the trains after losing their guns…When the Revolution Comes, Jesus Christ is going to be standing on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 112th Street trying to catch the first gypsy cab out of Harlem.”

Scott-Heron remained an eloquent voice of protest for the remainder of his life, producing such essential works as “Whitey on the Moon,” “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” “Winter in America,” “We Almost Lost Detroit,” the anti-Apartheid anthem “Johannesburg,” the blistering “Vildgolia (Deaf, Dumb and Blind),” "The Bottle" and the anti-Reagan screeds “B Movie” and “Re-Ron,” among others.

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