“To be young, gifted and black” Lorraine Hansbury
During the late 1950’s African-Americans were beginning to speak of the injustices of race, discrimination, education, and the lack of pride of a people that was subjected to the rigors of American racism. Certain scenes of white segregation took hold and roar it’s ugly head when Emmett Till, a young teenager from Chicago, visited his family in Money, Mississippi during the summer of 1955. Being from the north, the young Till wasn’t acclimated to the strict ‘Jim Crow‘ laws and rules blacks had to obey. One day he went to the store with his cousin and allegedly whistled at the store owner’s wife. Word spread fast and then soon Till was kidnapped from his great uncle’s home and then tortured, beaten, and shot then killed. Roy Bryant, owner of the store that Till made the gesture, along with J.W. Milam, then took Till’s body and thew him in the Tallahtachie River with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck. Both Bryant and Milam were acquitted for the murder of Emmett Till. Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett, wanted the world to see what these brutal men did under the laws of the ‘Jim Crow‘ south.
This incident, along with the monumental arrest of Sister Rosa Parks, lead to what would become the era of the Civil Rights Movement that lead, and still leads the battle for blacks and minorities around the country. It was also this time that the Black Arts Movement began producing black writers, artists, directors, and musicians to express their art, via the arts, a new awakening throughout the country. Writers like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Cecil Brown, Nikki Giovanni, and Ishmael Reed expressed the deep concerns of the plight of blacks trying to have the same equal rights. Even sports figures like Muhammed Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain played a major part on trying to allow blacks to compete or ask for the same pay as their other white counterparts.
When it came to the Black Arts Movement in the arts, icons like Paul Roberson and Josephine Baker had been blackballed by Hollywood and Washington, DC due to their strong political beliefs and how some in the establishment didn’t take kindly to “black nationalism” as J. Edger Hoover, former F.B.I director stated. Musicians like Odetta, Harry Belafonte, Abbey Lincoln, and Max Roach began to play and sing songs of the civil rights movement. These song or spirituals were the nucleus of rallies and marches all over the south.
Sister Nina Simone was both a fiery and passionate musician and vocalist that gave the world her unique social commentary at a time during the 1960’s when all blacks were tired of fire hoses, home bombings, and the south’s ‘Jim Crow’ laws. One of Simone’s many anthems included “Mississippi Goddam,” a song about the many atrocities that took place in Mississippi and parts of the south during the early 1960’s. Incidents like the murder of NAACP activist Medgar Evers being assassinated, the four little girls that where bombed to death in Alabama, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s endless tirades to organize effective non-violent demonstrations to raise the awareness of civil injustices against blacks.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21st, 1933 in Tyron, North Carolina, Nina the was sixth child of eight in a struggling working class family. Her father was a minister by trade, but was also a businessman that owned many businesses until the depression wiped out the local economy in the surrounding cities where she grew up. Her mother and many in the community knew of young Eunice’s gift to play the piano and singing. She always played during church every week as well as special functions. Nina received free piano lessons and played and competed during middle and high school. Upon graduation, she was supposed to study classical piano at the Curtis Institute of Music where Nina had high expectations to become a classical pianist. Although she wasn’t accepted, she moved to New York City where she studied at the Juilliard School of Music. Playing bars in Atlantic City to help pay for her tuition, she changed her name to Nina Simone named after the French actress Simone Signoret. Nina was also developing her stage presence and her unique blend of all forms of American roots music. She played classical, pop, jazz, blues, and what would evolve into soul music.
On a whim, she recorded a group of singles that would become her debut record called “Little Girl Blue” in the winter of 1958. One of the singles of that session,“I Loves You Porgy,” would become a hit for Nina and the rest would become history. Nina, years later would find out decades later that when she sold the rights to her debut album for $3000, the record would go on to make millions leaving her angry for years that she didn’t get any royalties.
From the start, she didn’t have many hit recordings like her contemporaries like Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Sarah Vaughan. Nina’s music was considered ahead of the curve allowing her to play some of the most important supper clubs and theaters all over the world. At a time when singers were either working the soul and jazz circuits, Nina was singing music that represented the connection of what was going on around the country. She forced black and white listeners to embrace African based records like “Zungo” and “Baby Brown.” Also, she became a fixture for the civil rights movement with songs like “Old Jim Crow” and “Blacklash Blues.” Another important record of her’s was Dr. Billy Taylor’s anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”
A couple of weeks ago during the 2011 Urbanworld 15th Annual Film Festival one of the many special events that took place was “I Put a Spell on You: The Music Tribute of Nina Simone” with special guest Dr. Sonia Sanchez. Ms. Sanchez has been on the front-lines since the origins of the Black Arts Movement since the early 1960’s and rubbed elbows and marched with the likes of Malcolm X, Dr. King, Eldridge Cleaver, and her dear friend Nina Simone. The tribute was present by Party Rebel, Forrest Renaissance, and the legendary Jamal Joseph of New Heritage Films and the Impact Repertory Theater. Many of today’s up-and-coming female soul and jazz vocalists came out and performed many of Nina’s legendary songs. Artists like Maya Azucena, Abby Dobson, Nikki Jean, Lina Elder, Cookie Batie, Lady Blue, Avnah, Kendra Ross, and Brianna Colette brought a new and fresh voice to Nina’s music to fans that range from their teens to their 80’s. The program was almost two and the half hours and Dr. Sanchez opened the festivities with the poem she wrote and performed at Nina’s funeral. Throughout the evening many of the vocalists expressed their gratitude to Nina and how she spoke up for women’s rights as well as the unfair rights of blacks.
During the 1970’s Nina began singing and speaking out against the Vietnam war. It was also that time when she undergone some personal problems and fled to Barbados and then to Liberia, Switzerland, and finally France where she resided until she died.
Nina, like poet/vocalist legend Gil-Scott Heron, were leaders of a conscious movement to help blacks through music, to empower people to take a stand on injustices. As the 1970’s lead to affirmative actions and the hiring of blacks in all sectors of the workforce, their talent and messages of their music fell on deaf ears. Disco and funk ruled the radio airwaves; and jazz and music with social causes became what would become punk rock and rap music, two musical styles that shut them out. Punk rock become the anti-establishment for angry white kids and rap was the same but came and originated from the inner-city ghettos from New York City. Nina fled the states to find herself as well as try to have somewhat of a normal life from performing. Whereas, Gil became a junkie and never became the icon he once was. What I admire about Nina and brother Gil is that they wrote and sang what it is to truly be “young, gifted, and black” at a time when they made us examine ourselves and how we must play a part in this race war. It seems that we don’t have musicians that had the guts to put up with both race and artistic integrity like Nina and Gil. At a time when there are two wars, a borderline recession, racists epithets spewing freely from Tea Baggers and angry G.O.P’ers; no one has stepped up to the plate artistically. I commend Nina and Gil for their musical genius to lead at time when blacks need to take a stand. I guess my generation and the generation under mine is content with Lil’ Wayne and Dr. Murray killing the King of Pop. I bet Nina and Gil are rolling over in their graves right about now!