I did not grow up in the Black church. I was brought up in my grandfather’s synagogue with cantors who had fine voices—though voices, nevertheless, that did not inspire me to lift towards god, let alone clap my hands. Physically, I’ve been to two churches: La Sagrada Familia and some church in the San Fernando Valley to watch a baby get dunked in some water. Sonically, I go to church all the time, the church of Aretha Franklin.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of her (eighteenth!!) album Young, Gifted and Black. The album as a whole is fantastic but its title track shines well above the rest. Every time I listen to Young, Gifted and Black, I find myself wondering if voices have ever sounded more beautiful than the ones lifting each other on this song—voices clear as sunshine.
The song begins with with Franklin at her piano, a quick run of her fingers across all the keys, only to pause, briefly, to give space to the voices to shine and after Franklin’s first triumphant rendering of the word Black, Billy Preston comes in with a quick rolling chord on the Hammond organ, a deeply Black sound, just to make sure that if you weren’t entirely fully completely sure that your ass just teleported to First New Bethel Methodist New Temple Baptist Black African Soap Missionary Church, Mr. Preston with that neck-craning chord, arrested you with assurance and when Franklin cocks her head back and erupts with, “Yes thank you Jesus!” it takes all of my strength to stop my foot from stomping a hole in whatever floor it currently rests on—for although I do not know of not one holy ghost, nor am I much of a believer in the phantasmic, apparitional, nor haunted; apparently my foot is a devotee and is doing its damnest to find said ghost.
The song is a cover of Nina Simone’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black, written in 1969 for Simone’s late friend, the luminous Lorraine Hansberry. Simone was tasked with composing the music and its lyrics were to be written by the virtuosic Weldon Irvine, Simone’s bandleader.
Simone’s composition is devastating; both mournful and triumphant, eulogistic and aspirational, a considerable memorial to Hansberry; a song very much justified in its awarding as the anthem for Black civil rights. A soaring song; operatic in its range; baritone background vocals work to lift and swell Simone’s incomparable voice; the drums crash and sing—the fills are furious, raucous and sound much closer to something off a Mingus or Ayler record. The song pulls us forward; cries towards us; commands us, tells us, implores with love and faith and fury, that we are worthy, we are loved, we are gifted, we are deserving of goodness and that’s a fact! And that’s where it’s at!
Simone told Irvine to write a song that would make “Black children all over the world feel good about themselves, forever.”
Simone debuted the song during a live performance at the New York Philharmonic. As she introduces the song, she throws out this line I think of often. She tells the audience that this new song is “not addressed primarily to white people, though it does not put you down in any way, it simply ignores you.” The white liberal crowd clap and cheer. It is a strange noise they make.
I often think about what is ours and what we are allowed to keep. The poet Fred Moten in conversation with poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib offers that he does not believe in ownership but certainly believes in theft. Much of what Black people produce is quickly stolen and I do not have the words nor heart to compile all of the larcenies nor do I have any interest in waging a conversation around appropriation. I am only interested in theft--
--But this particular song cannot be stolen nor appropriated nor shaped in any which way that takes it from Black people and as far as I know, only one white artist has ever tried to cover the song, Elton John in 1970 prior to his solo success, which is about as terrible as you might imagine, though somehow worse given that he performs it over an unwashed and unsalted approximation of a dance-hall melody.
There are slight differences between Franklin’s cover and Simone’s original. Franklin adds the word remember to the line ‘there is a great truth you should remember and know’, which I want to believe is a nod to the final stanza in Simone’s original, which Franklin does not use:
How to be 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
Is where it's at
Is where it's at
I’ve always imagined Simone and Irvine meant this song, particularly this last movement, as a gift, to us and to themselves. Irvine seems to be alluding to the tension and celebration inherent to Black liberation work. We are not foolish enough to believe liberation is possible today but it may very well be for the generations to come. All Black youths are haunted, in their own ways and to various extents. This song is the embodiment of what it means to be a good ancestor even as one is living. Black history is much like Black music, both hyper- and inter-texual; in constant conversation with itself, constantly remaking itself. I’m forever grateful that this song exists as I am forever grateful to be Black.