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>> 179 5 Soul Intact CORE, Conversions, and Covers of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” I know my people need me and I won’t let them down. —Nina Simone In a 1963 picture captured by members of the Highlander Folk School, Nina Simone grips the hands of the man and woman to her left and right while those around her sing (Figure 5.1). This tight space is one of performance, and although she was a solo artist, it was not hers alone. Simone is here sandwiched between two formidable Black activists whose careers would affect the advance and cultures of (inter)national politics: Marion Barry, Jr., who would later be mayor of Washington, D.C., and writer-activist-intellectual Lorraine Hansberry. While her comrades sing, Simone appears to be silent. Her gaze is directed toward an object outside of the group as she hovers between and behind both Barry and Hansberry. Behind her, actor and folk singer Theodore Bikel cranes his neck above her head to join in the communal performance . The interracial composition of the participants in tandem with the crossed arms that hug their chests while holding tight the hands of their neighbors signals that they are performing “We Shall Overcome.” The photo documenting this “impromptu song session” at Bikel’s home in Greenwich Village is not labeled with that anthem, however;1 it is instead captioned by Simone’s song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which was penned six years after this photo was taken. This alternative caption suggests that while Simone may be silent within this snapshot 180 > 181 artistic, and political repertoire, and she employed it in order to highlight the power of her message and to perform for the world the bravery of her comrades who faced pervasive danger in the Civil Rights and Black Power mobilizations that defined her generation. This period was the height of Simone’s fame, making it impossible and, more important, undesirable for her to cower or hide; instead she used the stage as the meeting place for diasporic artists, activists, and audiences who gathered in order to commemorate, coordinate, and raise collective challenges. Like those musician-activists before her, her sound politics constituted new publics through the composition and performance of music. Simone’s aggressive touring schedule and subsequent record sales internationally make her art a global phenomenon, capable of influencing cultures within the diaspora and organizing world. Some of her songs state their international perspective explicitly. Her 1969 anthem “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” documents her investment in the political potential of youth in the struggle to defeat U.S. racism as well as oppression abroad. Described as Simone’s “aspirations of the Black Power movement” by cultural historian Craig Werner,3 this text would stand as one of her most important contributions to the legacy of the long (and international) Civil Rights Movement. Its use and adoption in organizing for civil rights in the United States cemented its position in the movement canon of arts and letters and acts as both a loving memorial to the life and work of her mentor-confidant Lorraine Hansberry and a defiant celebration of and for the young people who through sit-ins, marches, and community organizing continued the fight of the many leaders gone. Simone and her anthems are necessary players within the histories of Black resistance because her work documents the rise of a secular and popular consciousness within the movement and also situates the Black response to injustice in the form of a global collective that is sounded and re-sounded through her performances, thereby offering “a window into a world beyond liberal civil rights organizations and leaders and into networks of activist cultural producers.”4 “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” is a striking representation of this project because it articulates the transition from the civil rights activity of the 1950s and early 1960s to the Black Power methodologies of the middle to late 1960s and early 1970s. As she gained critical knowledge of domestic and international 182 > 183 and perfection of each genre to measure her “freedom” as she described it, a practice that she exhibited through various sonic and performative methods ranging from moans to cursing to piano virtuosity. Through her unique deployment of “experimental wanderlust” and “black feminist distanciation,” she conceived of and displayed what literary scholar Daphne Brooks describes as “a performative sit-in” at her piano.7 Especially explosive during her live performances, Simone’s sit-ins...


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