Nina Simone's 'Lovely, Precious Dream' For Black Children With "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," Simone aimed to capture joy in black identity amid bloody civil rights struggle. The song was addressed to children, but adults caught on, too.
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Nina Simone's 'Lovely, Precious Dream' For Black Children

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Nina Simone's 'Lovely, Precious Dream' For Black Children

Nina Simone's 'Lovely, Precious Dream' For Black Children

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The voice of Nina Simone - singer, songwriter, classically trained pianist and activist. It's in that last role that she comes to our attention today because Nina Simone composed an American anthem. Noel King has the latest in our series.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Today for our American Anthem series, a song that uplifts and inspires. First, some history - we're going to start in 1963 with the murder of Medgar Evers. Evers was killed by a Klansman, shot in the back in his own driveway in Mississippi. Then three months later in Birmingham, Ala., four little girls were killed in a church bombing. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave their eulogy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: They died between the sacred walls of the church of God. And they were discussing the eternal meaning of love.

KING: In response to the grief and outrage, Simone wrote a powerful song with unsparing lyrics and a provocative title - "Mississippi Goddam."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI GODDAMN")

NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Alabama's gotten me so upset. Tennessee made me lose my rest. And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam.

KING: Fast forward to 1968, and you've got the scene for today's American anthem. The Black Power movement was rising. Pride in being black and beautiful was expressed by afros and fists raised in the air. Nina Simone captures this moment of joy in black identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK")

SIMONE: (Singing) Young, gifted and black. Oh, what a lovely, precious dream to be young, gifted and black.

KING: Simone wrote the song for children. But it became an anthem for adults, too. "To Be Young, Gifted And Black" was a dedication to Nina Simone's friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote "A Raisin In The Sun." Hansberry was the first black woman to have a play performed on Broadway. She and Simone bonded over civil rights and radical politics. And then in January 1965, Hansberry died of cancer at the age of 34. A few months before she died, Hansberry had told a group of student essay winners, you are young, gifted and black. Those words stuck in Nina Simone's head. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIMONE: This will sound very strange but not to people who are really hip. She kept trying to tell me something. And 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 at that moment and made up a tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK")

SIMONE: (Singing) 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.

KING: Simone wrote the music. The words came from her bandleader, Weldon Irvine. Simone told him, make it simple to, quote, "make black children all over the world feel good about themselves forever." "Young, Gifted And Black" caught on. And other artists quickly recorded it, including soul singer Donny Hathaway in 1970.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK")

DONNY HATHAWAY: (Singing) We're young, gifted - gifted and black.

KING: Aretha Franklin released her version in 1972.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) You're young, gifted and black.

KING: We invited two contemporary artists, African-American women from very different backgrounds, to share their thoughts on this American anthem.

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: My name's Meshell Ndegeocello. And I'm a musician and a parent.

KING: Meshell Ndegeocello is a 10-time Grammy nominee. She released the album "A Dedication To Nina Simone" in 2012. She says when she was growing up, there was a real need for this song.

NDEGEOCELLO: It's the first time I heard those words said about young, black people. You know, being of color, you did not feel that you were gifted - and especially if you were black.

KING: The first person to play the song for her was a white woman - her middle school teacher.

NDEGEOCELLO: In D.C., music wasn't so segregated. I mean, I love Burt Bacharach. And I grew up listening to The Carpenters. But she also played me, like, Bob Marley, Salif Keita. It was the beginning of my awareness of Africa. And it was somewhere in one of those classes or Black History Month where she was like, we're going to try to perform this song in a choir setting.

KING: As time passed, though, it became less popular.

SOMI: My name is Somi, and I'm a vocalist and a writer.

KING: Last year, Nina Simone's profile was raised again when she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Somi honored her in her own way in 2018. She performed Simone's songs at Lincoln Center in New York City. Somi was born in Illinois. Her parents were immigrants from Rwanda and Uganda. They encouraged her to take pride in her African heritage. She didn't really need a song for that, which made me wonder if she thinks this song is still necessary.

SOMI: I think it is important just to have these messages that tell young, black people that they are of value. When you look at the March Of Our Lives that recently happened in Washington and Naomi Wadler coming up there and feeling as though she had to speak...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NAOMI WADLER: I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don't make the front page of every national newspaper.

SOMI: You know, that speaks to the need for black youth, you know, to be seen, to be heard.

NDEGEOCELLO: It's an inner anthem, I think. It's existing on a subconscious level.

KING: In 2012, Meshell Ndegeocello, who has two sons, invited the singer Cody Chesnutt to perform "Young, Gifted And Black" on her album "A Dedication To Nina Simone."

NDEGEOCELLO: This was during the time of the whole Trayvon Martin incident. And I was affected as a mother. And so it just really - for some reason, I felt should be voiced with a strong, male presence. And that's why I chose Cody Chesnutt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK")

CODY CHESNUTT: (Singing) When you're young, gifted and black, your soul's intact.

NDEGEOCELLO: I hope it only makes you ask the question, why did that song have to be written?

KING: Nina Simone said she wanted this song to inspire black children to feel good about themselves forever. Maybe that's a lot to ask for one song. But that message is as important as it was when "To Be Young, Gifted And Black" first became an American anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF NINA SIMONE'S "TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK")

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