Songs of Protest & Healing: Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”

A celebration of brilliance, resilience and endless potential.

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In this ongoing feature, Songs of Protest & Healing, artists of color choose and reflect on pieces of music that compel them or provide moments of inner peace — or, as great songs often do, both. – Ed.

As an artist who prides himself on making music that speaks to the concerns and issues of the Black American experience, I’ve always regarded Nina Simone as a special source of inspiration. (Also like her, I’m an instrumentalist and vocalist who comes from a studied background in both jazz and European classical music — yet another way she’s inspired me.)

The beautiful thing about the historical canon known as Black music is that features a wealth of artists who made it a point to speak about the entire range of the experience of being Black in America. The hardships, the anger, the frustration, the pain, the beauty and the everlasting sense of hope — Black music covers it all. This long and influential lineage of artists — including, among countless others, Billie Holiday, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Public Enemy and Common, not to mention our international voices of freedom such as Fela Kuti, Bob Marley and Hugh Masekela — have all spoken truth to power in their own unique way. Nina Simone is undoubtedly one of this canon’s most important artists, a singer, pianist and songwriter who not only touched on issues of social justice through her music but also devoted a great portion of her artistic output to the uplifting of her people.

Black music has always served as an insight into the very layered emotional and spiritual experience of being a citizen of this nation; the very nature of the blues expresses the duality of despair and hope. Though Black music has served many purposes and has been reflective of a multitude of experiences, the “protest” song has always appeared, again and again. And while it is easy to broadly paint “protest” music as monolithic, it is in itself very diverse, and as eclectic as the artists who contribute to it.

Written by Simone and Weldon Irvine, and inspired by the memory of Lorraine Hansberry, whose writings were posthumously assembled into a play of the same name, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” is a perfect example of how wide the spectrum of Black “protest” music truly is. I hesitate even to refer to this song as a song of protest, because I hear it as a celebration of Black brilliance and excellence — or as Simone states humorously in her intro, recorded live in 1969 and included on the Black Gold album, “Now, it is not addressed primarily to white people, though it does not put you down in any way; it simply ignores you.” She goes on to say, “For my people need all the inspiration and love that they can get.”

This song is a call to all the young, brilliant Black minds across the world that they are special and wonderful and should rejoice in all of their potential. The song’s focus on the youth is important to remember, for it is within them that our hope lies; as the song says, “We must begin to tell our young/There’s a whole world waiting for you/This is a quest that’s just begun.” Despite the injustice and oppression the world has created as an obstacle to happiness and pride, Simone recognizes that her people sometimes just need to be reminded that they are beautiful and that they do matter.

“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” breaks the narrative that Black people are only defined by their struggle. Though that struggle has been an unavoidable part of our history, we must find moments to celebrate our resilience, pride and endless potential. If there was ever a question of why Black lives matter, this song answers it — simply, boldly and beautifully.

Ben Williams is an acclaimed bassist and vocalist who lives in New York City. As a member of Pat Metheny’s Unity Band he won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album in 2013. His new album is I Am a Man, released on Rainbow Blonde Records.   

Image: Nina Simone in Paris, March 1969. Credit: Roger Viollet via Getty.

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