Remembering Singer Nina Simone

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The recent reissue of her album, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, prompted commentator Mark Anthony Neal to consider how her songs inspired a generation. Neal is an Associate professor at Duke University.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon; next time on NEWS AND NOTES: former Atlanta Mayor and U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young has taken on a controversial position with retail giant Wal-Mart. He joins me to discuss his new role and will talk about hot spots around the world. That's next time on NEWS AND NOTES from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ED GORDON, host:

March is Women's History Month and commentator Mark Anthony Neal remembers the music of history maker Nina Simone, a woman and artist whose songs inspired a generation.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL reporting: With the recent release of the recording Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit, I was reminded of the legacy of Nina Simone. The vocalist and activist who died in April 2003, continues to have a presence in contemporary American culture as her music and activist spirit have been referenced in recent years by artists like Talib Kweli,

(Soundbite of Talib Kweli's, "Get By")

We sell crack to our own out the back of our homes

We smell the musk of the dusk in the crack of the dawn

Just to get by, just to get by, just to get by...

NEAL: Kanye West, Masters at Work, Lauryn Hill and even the Dixie Chicks.

In deed the recent deaths of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King recall an era when Simone was often thought to be the voice of the civil rights movement. Where songs like Mississippi Goddamn, I wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free, and Why the King of Love is Dead, her musical eulogy for Martin Luther King, Jr.

My memories of Nina Simone go back to my earliest childhood when I first heard her song To Be Young, Gifted and Black. The song was written by Simone and her longtime musical director Weldon Irvine, Jr. in 1969 as a tribute to Simone's friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry was the author of A Raisin in the Sun, the first drama by an African American woman to appear on Broadway. To Be Young, Gifted and Black was also the title of a play that featured Hansberry's own autobiographical writings.

At the time that it was recorded, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black had a particular resonance. It was in many ways the first post-civil rights anthem as it imagined the possibility that so many of us would have in the aftermath of the political struggles of the late 1950s and 1960s. Hearing the Nine Simone single on my parent's old record player, it was as if the song demanded that I take full advantage of the opportunities that were surely coming our way and I wasn't the only way who felt this. As musician Michelle Ndege Ocello told the Los Angeles Times at the time of Simone's death "there's no telling how many lives she touched with the simple affirmation of the beauty of being young, gifted and black."

Further proof of Ndege Ocello's comments can be found in the number of versions of the song that were performed in the immediate aftermath of Simone's recording, including stirring versions by Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin. Franklin's version of the song was later featured in John Singleton's film Higher Learning, which again, highlights the impact the song had on a generation of blacks who came of age in the years after the watershed moments of the civil rights and black power movements.

I often look back nostalgically of those days when I was a child and try to remember what it was like when both the folks in my community, and the music that blared from the stereo not only encouraged me to successful, but implored me to do so because I was young and black and presumed to be gifted.

As we lament to so-called failings of the hip-hop generation, perhaps we should remember Nina Simone's simple gesture, and take a moment to remind them that they too are young, gifted and black.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Mark Anthony Neal is an Associate Professor at Duke University.

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