Friday, 7 March 2014

To be young, gifted and black . . .

Like most girls of colour growing up, I too needed role models to look up to that could empower me. Nina Simone was a strong black woman who I had the pleasure of listening to along my musical journey.  I was first introduced to her jazz offerings and interpretations of song formerly released by the likes of Billie Holliday, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole as well as her notable interpretation of I Loves You Porgy in my senior years of high school.

Nina's haunting rendition of Strange Fruit is one of my favourite pieces not only for her impassioned contralto voice but also because of the juxtaposition of the stark chordal accompaniment - reminiscent of Chopin's many Preludes and even Liszt's Liebestraume.  The imagery painted in the song also leaves the listener with no illusions about the darkness of the lyrical content.  It is rare to hear interpretation of words that evoke so much feeling as when Simone sings "trees" to depict the falling of the trees with the descending swoop of the melody and the inflection on the final singing of "strange" - sung as if she is physically shuddering.  

Despite being rejected by a prestigious music school to further her studies as a classical pianist, the world would not be denied of their chance to hear Nina in her true calling and destiny as the "High Priestess of Soul."  Her performances at jazz festivals featured her penchant for performing classically-inspired pieces that made it hard for critics to classify her music as her tastes were eclectic.

But I digress.

The ideas and message behind her Black Civil Rights anthem To be young, gifted and black (lyrics by Weldon Irvine Jr.) still rings true today more than ever.  It is a celebration of hope for the future, that prompts refection to transform into action.  It calls to question and makes you wonder in your contexts - what messages we are sharing with our young people.  If they continue to hear messages that they are no good because of the racial stereotypes that may continue to ring, granted there are continual improvement as time progresses - but we can always benefit from acknowledging our uniqueness, rather than our differences.  

To be young, gifted and black,
Oh what a lovely precious dream
To be young, gifted and black,
Open your heart to what I mean

In the whole world you know
There are billion boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black,
And that's a fact!

Young, gifted and black
We must begin to tell our young
There's a world waiting for you
This is a quest that's just begun

When you feel really low
Yeah, there's a great truth you should know
To be young, gifted and black
Your soul's intact


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

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


The search for truth, the wonderings that seep out from the line "Oh how I long to know the truth" and even the lines that follow that discuss the memories of what the past held about what life would've been like for young black people - to still feel trapped in that cycle of despair.  Luckily this situation is rectified in the final words of the song.

I leave you with Nina's sincere and earnest thoughts, from the 1970 Live concert at Berkeley, as the High Priestess herself talks about this song:
"It is not addressed primarily to white people, although it does not put you down in any way, it simply ignores you. . . for my people need all the inspiration and the love that they can get."