Songs of Black Lives Matter: Nina Simone, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black"

American pianist and jazz singer Nina Simone performs October 18, 1964 in an unidentifed location. Simone, whose deep, raspy voice made her a unique jazz figure and later helped chronicle the civil rights movement, died in her sleep on April 21, 2003 of natural causes after a long illness.
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In the wake of nationwide heartache following the news of George Floyd's death, there is a growing urgency to support the Black Lives Matter cause. Generations of soul artists have contributed to the movement through anthemic songs of protest and statement albums that have begun and furthered the conversations addressing racism, violence and disillusionment.

In this ongoing series, we highlight the songs of the Black Lives Matter movement that launched and empowered people's pleas for a brighter future. Check back in weekly to listen and learn about the songs that have unified people throughout history to stand up for racial equality.

Nina Simone, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black"

When Nina Simone passed away, she left behind a fearless legacy that continues to bear fruit today. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee was a rare spirit. The classically trained Simone married blues, politics, gospel, soul and jazz as she led an unflinching career of authority and complexity. 

"Nina Simone was more rock & roll than a bunch of people who have already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” as folk singer Rhiannon Giddens shared with Rolling Stone.

In the turbulent times of the civil rights era, filled with rampant protests against the Vietnam War and the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr,  Simone defiantly stood up as a freedom fighter. With a calling to use her platform for greatness, the High Priestess of Soul gave voice to a different side of the Black Power movement as she amplified the beauty and pride of being black and beautiful in a new song. 

ON THE SONG'S INSPIRATION:

"To Be Young, Gifted and Black" was inspired by Nina Simone's friend and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote 1959's A Raisin in the Sun. As the first black woman to have a play performed on Broadway, Hansberry and Simone grew close in their shared passions for radical politics. 

Of Hansberry, Simone wrote, "Although Lorraine was a girlfriend. . . we never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk. . . Lorraine was most definitely an intellectual, and saw civil rights as only one part of the wider racial and class struggle. . . Lorraine started off my political education, and through her I started thinking about myself as a black person in a country run by white people and a woman in a world run by men."

Hansberry passed away of cancer by January 1965, but a few months before her death, she congratulated a group of essay-winning students, "I wanted to be able to come here and speak with you on this occasion because you are young, gifted and black."

The words imprinted into Simone's mind, as she reminisced in an interview at Morehouse College (the same university with Dr. Martin Luther King was once a professor) in Atlanta, "I remember getting a feeling in my body, and I said, 'That's it: to be young, gifted and black. That's all.' And sat down at the piano and made up a tune. It just flowed out of me."

KEY LYRIC: "To be young, gifted and black/ Oh, what a lovely, precious dream/ To be young, gifted and black/Open your heart to what I mean"

As Simone composed the song at her piano, her bandleader Weldon Irvine penned the rest of the tune on napkins and scratch in New York City. Simone had kept her instructions simple: to write something that "will make black children all over the world feel good about themselves, forever."

To be young, gifted and black
Oh, what a lovely precious dream
To be young, gifted and black
Open your heart to what I mean
In the whole world you know
There are a million boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black
And that's a fact! 

"To Be Young, Gifted and Black" was released in 1969 and was also included in Simone's 1970 album Black Gold. As the striking anthem caught on as the Civil Rights movement, the single ascended to No. 8 on Billboard's R&B Charts, lending itself to cover versions, including Donny Hathaway's version in 1970 and Aretha Franklin's title track in her 1972 album Young, Gifted and Black. 

There are many ways people can support the movement against police violence and provide relief to the communities who have been impacted by police racism. Help the family of George Floyd HERE. Fight for Breonna Taylor HERE. Help the family of Ahmaud Arbery HERE.

Want to help protesters? Donate to one or more community bail funds HERE. Visit Movement For Black Lives for additional ways you can help the cause. Want to connect with leaders building grass roots campaigns? Click HERE. Are you an ally and want to learn more? Here are some anti-racism resources.

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