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

My students have a listening assignment each week, drawing from the diverse history of music. For example, my piano students have listened to everything from renaissance era clavichord music, to Ben Folds, and Nico Muhly. Given continuing online lessons, I decided to take this activity online.

This week's selection is Nina Simone's "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black." Nina Simone was a classically-trained pianist, singer, and songwriter who became famous in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement. She grew up in Tryon, a small town in western North Carolina, on the southern state border. Like other songs from the decade -- James Brown's "Say it Loud-I'm Black and I'm Proud" debuted the same year -- this song stood out for its strong positive message about black identity and empowerment. Lyrics in the song include, "Oh but my joy of today, Is that we can all be proud to say, To be young, gifted and black, Is where it's at." Nina Simone dedicated this song to the black playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and borrowed the song's title from a Hansberry quote recognizing a group of black, award-winning, writers. While this message of black empowerment is heard more widely today than it was 60 years ago, many media sources continue to propogate racist messages, and white supremacy ideology.

Musically, Simone blends sounds of gospel music with the characteristic horn sections heard on records from STAX, and Motown. The choral harmony and piano reference the gospel style in the first stanza. We also hear the vibraphone, adding timbre that we seldom hear in today's popular music. The horns enter during the second stanza and the song shifts toward a more classic Motown sound. You can find more information about Nina Simone and this song in this article from NPR.