Remembering Nina Simone: To Be Young, Gifted And Black

Remembering Nina Simone: To Be Young, Gifted And Black

Simone's musical composition and vocals explored the historical context of Jim Crow laws that perpetuated systemic racism.

LylaUpdated: Friday, February 23, 2024, 06:27 PM IST
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Nina Simone breaks the narrative that black people are only defined by their struggle. Though that struggle has been an unavoidable part of their history, they must find moments to celebrate their resilience, pride and endless potential.

How to be young, gifted and black?
Oh, how I long to know the truth
There are times when I look back
And I am haunted by my youth.

This song was written in 1970 for young black people facing apartheid. Simone was not just a popular jazz singer who sang about the gift of being black and young, but she literally devoted her crucial years of life to the Civil Rights Movement. Extremely driven, passionate and somewhat proud by nature, Nina was equally tender and tenacious in her fight against apartheid.

Popular, then banned

In her first Phillips Records concert in 1964, Nina first addressed racial inequality in the United States with her song "Mississippi Goddamn". It was her reaction to the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the subsequent bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama that killed four young black girls and left one blind. The song became so popular that it was banned from being played or recorded in several white elite areas of America. It was considered the anthem of civil rights activism in America. After that, she raised her voice against the Jim Crow Act through her song 'Old Jim Crow'. (The law that enforced racial segregation in America, "Jim Crow" being a pejorative term for an African American.)

Simone's musical composition and vocals explored the historical context of Jim Crow laws that perpetuated systemic racism. The title itself refers to the derogatory term "Jim Crow" (which symbolizes the dehumanization and marginalization of black people.) Nina urges listeners to question the oppressive system in America. Her heart wrenching raw vocals capture the pain and frustration of African-Americans, emphasizing their longing for justice and equal rights. This anthem gave blacks a voice in their fight. Also, Nina’s ability to deliver the social commentary with her soulful tunes also came to the fore. She often invited trouble for herself by performing this song in concerts but she continued to work as an honest artist without fearing the social order, defying the police.

"How can you be an artist and not reflect times?" Nina clearly says in one of her interviews, ‘’I think that’s true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I am concerned it's their choice but I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty and at this crucial time in our lives when everything is so desperate, when everyday is a matter of survival, I don't think you can help but be involved.’’ 

Supporting revolution

She supported black nationalism and advocated violent revolution. Of course, this was only natural considering her nature and attitude towards art! But she wasn't the one who just talked. She was an active participant in the 87 km Selma-Montgomery March in 1965.

Her album released in 1968 'Nuff Said!' (Enough said) contained live recordings from the Westbury Music Fair which was held three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. She dedicated the concert to her ‘Little Mike’. In her biography she credits her friend Hansberry for cultivating her social and political consciousness.

Raising voice against injustice

However, Nina, who raised her voice against the injustice through her music regardless of the consequences, confessed in an interview with Jet magazine that the movement songs like Mississippi Goddamn were the reason for her other songs getting banned too and the post-movement days were very difficult for her.

In the year 1970, somewhat bored and exhausted, Nina went to Barbados in the West Indies, far away from America. Her husband/manager was expected to call her back after the ban on her singing and performing was lifted, but in her absence (and while she was having an affair with the Prime Minister of Barbados, Earl Barrow,) he messed with her money and after returning to America, huge troubles awaited Nina. On the advice of her friend, Mama Africa (who was herself a successful jazz singer), Nina went to Liberia, completely abandoning her daughter Lisa in this journey. Lisa has often mentioned that her mother was abusive.

Downward turn in her career

Tired of her mother's harassment, she started living with her father. Just like the other jazz and blues singers of her times, Nina’s career took a downward turn after reaching a peak of success. In 1978, she recorded her last album 'Baltimore' which didn't do well while she was alive. Her concert career also began to suffer in the years that followed. Being an alcoholic, she was often in no condition to perform.

She spent the last years of her life in France battling breast cancer. She received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award for her song "I Loves You, Porgy" in 2000 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. Two days before her death, Simone learned she would be awarded an honorary degree by the Curtis Institute of Music, the music school that had refused to admit her as a black student at the beginning of her career! Nina lived like a storm. Her life and music have influenced not only jazz singers, but also the legendary musicians and singers working in new age pop, RnB, soul genres. Her music is timeless. Each of her songs is as relatable today as it was then. Not for nothing we call her the 'High Priestess of Soul'.

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