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To be young, gifted, and black

Luis Dias

A twelve-year-old little girl, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, from a poor family but whose prodigious ability at the piano had already been discovered years earlier in her local church, is on-stage, about to make her concert debut with a solo recital. Her proud parents are seated in the front row.

Suddenly, this idyllic picture goes terribly wrong. Eunice watches as her parents are unceremoniously asked to move to the back of the hall. Why? Because of the colour of their skin. This is 1940s North Carolina, they are black, and white people wish to have their seats. Think of the embarrassment and humiliation, and the psychological effect it must have on a young child about to perform at such a crucial coming-of-age event, nerve-wracking on its own terms even without this outrage to add to it.

But Waymon, at 12, takes a stand. She refuses to play until her parents are moved back to the front.

The girl grew up to take the stage name of Nina Simone. She never forgot the childhood incident, and it significantly contributed to her later involvement in the civil rights movement.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, I’ve been listening to the BBC Proms classical music festival online, on internet radio. Prom 45 was devoted wholly as a Homage to Nina Simone (1933-2003).

 Before she took to singing, Simone had aspirations to be a concert pianist. As was discussed in the Proms Plus talk in the interval of the Proms tribute concert, it was imbedded in her from the start. The hometown community in Tryon North Carolina raised money so she could take piano lessons with an Englishwoman living in the area, from whom she studied the music of Bach, Czerny, Liszt and other piano greats. Her supporters also helped her enroll in the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York, where she studied in 1950 under German pianist and teacher Carl Friedberg.

She then applied for a scholarship to study at the famed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. But despite a well-received audition, Simone was denied admission, almost certainly due to racial discrimination. The Curtis Institute, in a classic case of too little too late, attempted to right a historical wrong by conferring on her an honorary degree only in 2003, the year of her death, literally just days before she died.

This case only came to light because Nina Simone became the legend that she is, that lives on after her. One wonders how many more brilliant careers were nipped in the bud in a similar fashion. When one wonders why there is such a gross under-representation of people of colour in classical music in the Western world, this is certainly one of the many reasons why.

But although Simone’s aspirations of a career in classical music were thwarted, her desire to express herself in music was irrepressible, and posterity thanks her for her grit and tenacity. The reason she changed her name (Nina was derived from ‘niña’ a term of affection her then-boyfriend Chico used for her; and Simone from the French actress Simone Signore, whose 1952 film ‘Casque d’Or’ she had seen) was to disguise herself from her own family, who would have disapproved of her playing piano at a nightclub in Atlantic City New Jersey, derided in her family circles as “devil’s music” and “cocktail piano”. It was the only avenue open to her, when she saw the door to a life in classical music slamming in her face.At the nightclub, she was contracted to sing as well as play, which is how she began to sing. Imagine the loss to the world if they hadn’t made that request.

Yet her interest in classical music never dimmed. In ‘Love Me or Leave Me’, she plays a crisply articulated Bachian contrapuntal interlude that reflects her pianistic skill. As the Proms Plus exclaimed at the end of broadcasting the excerpt, “Bach lives! Through Nina!”

Simone’s stylistic breadth in her albums was almost all-encompassing, from gospel, soul, funk, blues, jazz, pop, folk, R&B, and of course, quite a few forays into her beloved classical music as well. Almost any song, in any genre, could be covered by her, from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ to Jacque Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, to Andy Newman’s ‘Baltimore’. Her versatility and facility were truly astounding. Even in taking someone else’s song, she could make it her own, tell the story in her own unique way, a hallmark of true musicianship.

She put her art into her passion for civil rights as well. The Proms tribute concert was titled ‘Mississippi Goddam’, after one of her iconic songs, (written in reaction to the white supremacist bombing of a church in Alabama in 1963, killing four black children) which she dubbed her “first civil rights song” and quickly became an anthem for the cause, along with others, ‘Four Women’ (representing the four archetypes of African-American women in society) and ‘To be Young, Gifted and Black’.

The white supremacist terrorist bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama fuelled her outrage and fury so much that she is believed to have composed the lyrics and music to ‘Mississippi Goddam’ in ten minutes. The text is powerful: “Why don’t you see it? Why don’t you feel it? I don’t know, I don’t know. You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality!”

Simone paid a heavy price for writing the song, incurring her boycott by the music industry, and prompting her self-exile from the US.

Simone wrote the music for ‘To be Young, Gifted and Black’ (lyrics by African-American composer and poet Weldon Jonathan Irvine Jr) in memory of her friend the African-American playwright and writer Lorraine Vivian Hansberry who had died in 1965, aged just 34. (She had left behind an unfinished play, titled ‘To be Young, Gifted and Black’). Even today, if you read the comments on the song uploaded on YouTube, it gives hope and strength to countless youth ever since.

The lyrics must have spoken directly to her as well: “In the whole world you know; There are billion boys and girls; Who are young, gifted and black; And that’s a fact! … When you feel really low; Yeah, there’s a great truth you should know; When you’re young, gifted and black; Your soul’s intact.”

An artist with a conscience and willing to use her art to speak out against injustice, regardless of the consequences is a rare breed indeed. But it is the need of the hour today, here and the world over. Through her music, she continues to motivate, inspire, call to action and continue the fight for freedom and equality from beyond the grave.

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