Political Songs | Your Revolution – Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones’s feminist takedown of misogynistic rap songs quoted other hip-hop artists’ lyrics and got banned. The irony was lost on the censors.

There are some songs that don’t make a dent on the hit parades, but have a colossal effect on popular culture long after their release dates. Think To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969), made popular by Nina Simone and performed by a number of other artists; Ian Dury’s Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (1977); and Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1970). Their titles and content are used in everyday conversation and have been incorporated, adapted and included in newspaper headlines, think pieces, academic essays, broadcasts, films and books.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised has provided especially rich pickings. In it, Scott-Heron takes on consumerism by listing the things he hates: banal icons of white consumer culture and political figures who then dominated American television. The song contains 45 popular and political cultural references.

It has been sampled in at least 31 songs and reinterpreted, repurposed, recontextualised, quoted, expanded, referenced, reimagined and alluded to in countless others. A particularly compelling variation on the theme is American poet, actor, singer Sarah Jones’s Your Revolution, which has lyrics set to blunted electronic beats by Russian-born Brit, DJ Vadim, and first released in 1999.

Jones’s intelligent, feminist takedown of the rampant misogyny in mainstream rap starts with a call out to one of the godfathers of political spoken word set to music and the song’s originator, Scott-Heron:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, this goes out to all the women and men from New York to 
London to LA to Tokyo struggling to keep their self respect in this climate 
Of misogyny, money worship and mass production of hip-hop’s illegitimate child, 
Hip-pop. And this especially goes out to Gil Scott-Heron, friend, living legend 
And proto-rapper who wrote, ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’. Much Respect.

She then goes on to cleverly rhyme her chorus with Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised:

Your revolution will not happen between these thighs
Your revolution will not happen between these thighs
Your revolution will not happen between these thighs.

In her song, Jones subverts sexist rap by the likes of Biggie, LL Cool J, Shaggy and Akinyele, taking exact lines from some of their worst songs, turning around their clichés of sexual braggadocio and deftly parodying them. “It is a feminist attack on male attempts to equate political ‘revolution’ with promiscuous sex,” she later explained.

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Jones wrote it as a hip-hop fan, she told The Washington Post. “I’m not attacking hip-hop. I’m attacking sexism in the larger culture. I’m a cultural critic and a member of the hip-hop generation.”

Later in Your Revolution, she pays respect to progressive hip-hop artists The Roots, Common and De La Soul, and concludes:

You know I'm talking about the revolution
When it comes, it’s gonna be real.

But censors – who are not known for their wit – didn’t get Jones’s irony, sarcasm, parody and feminism. In May 2001, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined Portland, Oregon’s KBOO-FM – a listener-supported, noncommercial radio station – just under R100 000 for playing Your Revolution. One of its DJs had aired it 18 months earlier.

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The reason, according to the FCC, is that the song was “indecent”. Jones sued the commission with the help of KBOO-FM and a number of free speech organisations. She said the FCC’s action hurt her reputation. “To have ‘sexually indecent’ attached to my name is something we couldn’t let stand.”

It took nearly two years for the FCC to overturn its decision. In February 2003, it ruled Your Revolution was not “indecent” and made it available for radio play again. The Portland radio station was refunded.

Ironically, not one of the misogynous songs Jones quoted in Your Revolution was ever banned by the FCC. But then, censors don’t do irony. And they don’t care about misogyny, it seems.

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