Illustration by Isabel Ríos

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. It Will Be (On Facebook) Live

US American jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron’s words take on a whole new meaning for the revolution in 2020, in the age of social media and internet activism, when you can be at home and be there at the same time.

Aug 30, 2020

“It will be live.” When U.S. American jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron said these words in his song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised in the 1970s, the United States was a different place. But, while the media landscape was different, intrinsic racism was much the same.
Scott-Heron’s poem used at-home cable television as a metonymy to explain that revolution would not come easy or in manageable, bite-sized chunks. Revolution was not to be seen from the comfort of a couch or from behind a haze of “skag,” with breaks for “beer during commercials.” Revolution would require a shift in mindset, a reconfiguration of the way one was living in and moving through the world. Those who wished to continue thinking and understanding the world as they always had — because change was not a matter of survival for them — misunderstood what was required for revolution.
For anything close to a revolution to happen at all, Scott-Heron made it clear: “You will not be able to stay home, brother.” The revolution would not be, and cannot be, televised. Instead, it lives in the streets, visceral and embodied in the hearts, lungs, songs, screams and raised hands of Black people yearning for a future, let alone a better one. Heron explained that the privileged members of society will not be able to maintain their comfort or security during revolution because the system providing these things needed upending to create better reality for all. Because the revolution will not be televised, because it will have no re-run, because it will be live — the unuttered question throughout his poem is: Will you be there?
So, what does this mean for the revolution in 2020, in the age of social media and internet activism? When you can be at home and be there, when a video itself is actually a catalytic factor? When the digital can be complementary to, or facilitative of, the live? Is our liking and sharing comparable to being there? How has there been redefined, if at all? Is there a difference between modern social media and Scott-Heron’s television?
On some level, social media allows a movement to disseminate widely in a way television does not. International coordination is infinitely more possible. Accurate and pertinent information on protests, rallies, account takeovers and webinars can spread faster and further than ever before. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, and certainly amid the pandemic, relevant action can and at times must be taken from home.
Calls and texts, emails to elected officials, gofundmes, carrds, petitions, facts. Social media, like many social movements, is youth-driven and dynamic. We are just beginning to see how protestors can utilize technology and virtual networks. But there are useless or deceptive calls and texts, emails, gofundmes, petitions, “facts.” There are limits to technology and virtual networks, there is potential for harm, and plenty of room for apathy and desensitization.
Some of those corrosive elements, like their constructive counterparts, are nothing new — just reimagined. What was rumor or false information is now a Tweet rapidly reshared. Connection and diverse coalition building happens in a Facebook group, or over a Zoom call. Apathy may stem from scrolling through an endless feed of practically identical posts, rather than the traditional physical distance or removal. Forces that have always been at play, have been transmuted to fit our common language in and understanding of this digital world.
On social media platforms, the celebrity and commercial factors that Scott-Heron rightly scorns in his poem, have become prominent in this current movement. The hyper-visibility created by social media results in a certain peer pressure encouraging at least the facade of consciousness and care for the issue of the moment from public figures and organizations. This has allowed for something once widely considered radical to shift, and shift rapidly, to fall well within the bounds of mainstream discourse e.g., Mitt Romney — yes that Mitt Romney — at a BLM protest, or statements from H&M and other brands proclaiming “Black Lives Matter!”)
Corporate and celebrity activism are not exactly heart-stirring. Frankly, they feel hollow. Does not newfound acceptance and broader popularity reinforce the structures that have perpetuated racism for so long in the U.S. and abroad, and give unearned credibility to people and institutions that have long maintained a symbiotic relationship with American white supremacy? Yet, with celebrities in particular, there is a historical precedent for their presence lending to advancement. Monetary support, providing visibility, altering the cultural conversation; these actions can certainly strengthen the power of a movement. Is the fact that progressive values are even considered fashionable, what makes this time, our time?
A movement needs a soul, a moral foundation. When I imagine Scott-Heron’s “live” revolutionaries, they have this psychic obligation rooted in the knowledge of a historical inheritance. There is a lived experience of, and a bearing witness to, the realities of that inheritance, and the resulting inner fire allows for both efficacy and endurance.
This “soul” — this personal connection to a movement — and digital activism may not be mutually exclusive. Take for example the following feature consistent across diverse platforms. We choose to follow people, people whose lives we decide we want to witness some part of. We follow and like, perhaps comment; maybe they follow us back. Now, you don’t just see what they decide matters from time to time, but every moment. What is on their minds, what they think should be on yours. It feels personal, prompting. If they post about a protest nearby, an article to read, a development they are paying attention to, it is an indicator you should do the same. All of this sounds like movement building to me. De facto relational organizing without the barrier of physical proximity.
One thing that is different about the role of today’s media is its capacity to actually enable productive mobilization. The revolution of yore could not be “televised” because television implied remaining in place. A TV set resides in a fixed location, does not adapt, does not encourage you to do anything other than stay put. At the very least, today’s virtual calls to action, sharing of resources for self-education, platforms for storytelling and story-making, encourage movement — often the forward kind. Forward to a space of justice and equity where we recognize that true liberation can only come collectively.
The revolution will not be televised, but parts of it may be glimpsed on Instagram TV. The revolution will not be televised, but seeds of necessary inquiry and interrogation may lie behind Twitter links. The revolution will not be televised. Instead, it will be live. Perhaps even on Facebook Live.
Maya Muwanga is a Contributing Writer. Email them at
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