This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #205: Young, Gifted and Black by Nina Simone.
Recently, I had the great good fortune to watch a documentary called, “The Summer of Soul”. This documentary recently won the top prize at The Sundance Movie Festival. It was lovingly curated by a man called Questlove, who is the leader of the band known as “The Roots” and also, the musical director on the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon Show on TV.
“The Summer of Soul” chronicles an event that happened in 1969 called The Harlem Cultural Festival. This Festival took place at almost the exact same time as Woodstock did yet, for reasons unsaid but, undeniable at the same time, the Harlem Cultural Festival footage was ignored by the media and lay untouched, in the basement of one of the original organizers for over fifty years before Questlove became aware of it. As someone who is a proud black man, Questlove sought permission to use his own public platform to talk to people about The Harlem Cultural Festival. Permission was granted. Questlove then, spent several years carefully restoring the hundreds of film reels he was given access to; cleaning up each frame, repairing and reinforcing any weak spots in the filmstrips, amplifying the sound quality and so on. Then, once the film was ready to be handled, Questlove went about the business of telling the story of the Festival.
“The Summer of Soul” talks about the performers who appeared (I shall get to that in a moment), the context of when the Festival happened (in the wake of the assassinations of the Kennedys, Dr. King and Malcolm X), the cultural connections the black community had with the Latino Community, the various connections the music had to Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Funk and so much more. The documentary is told from the perspective of those who performed there, as well as, those who attended as regular ticket holders. In both cases, participants in the documentary were being interviewed by Questlove, as they watched the historical record of the Festival. All in all, Questlove has done a masterful job of assembling this information. It stands alone as a concert film, as a cultural record of the times, as a series of biographies of those who performed, as a fashion and Arts lesson and, so much more.
“The Harlem Cultural Festival” was opened by a nineteen year old Stevie Wonder, who absolutely rips it up with his performance. Others who followed included Gladys Knight and the Pips (singing, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” because, after all, they were the original singers of that song and not Marvin Gaye, who made it famous), B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone (who were excellent, too), David Ruffin (from The Temptations) singing, “My Girl”, the Fifth Dimension (singing “Age of Aquarius”), Mahalia Jackson belting out the Gospel songs, along with Pops Staples and the Staples singers (including Mavis Staples), the Reverend Jesse Jackson preached and a whole host of acts, unknown to me at the time but, who impressed me greatly, such as The Chambers Brothers, Max Roach, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, Ray Barretto, Hugh Masekela, Mongo Santamaria and so many more. From the perspective of musical talent alone, The Harlem Cultural Festival was easily the equal, if not even the superior of Woodstock. The performances are electric, the sound quality is excellent and the information given by the artists, themselves, as they watched themselves play and/or by the members of the audience, as they remember seeing the performances live, it is all incredible.
The Festival (and the documentary) is closed by singer, musician and poet, Nina Simone. I have to admit that, prior to watching “The Summer of Love” that I did not know that much about Nina Simone. But, having now watched this film, I stand corrected. What a powerful presence she had. She was a beautiful, strong, vocal, authoritative, talented black woman and she turns out to be the most rivetting performer of them all! One of the things I liked best about the documentary was the how joyous an occasion it was for all involved; performers, organizers and audience members. As mentioned previously, it was an emotional time with regard to race relations in America. De-segregation and equal rights had become enshrined in law but, in reality, it was not easy to be black in America. With the murders of JFK, RFK, Dr. King and Malcom X, it looked like any racial progress that had been made was about to be washed away. Race riots broke out in many major US cities, including, in Harlem, in NYC. The Harlem Cultural Festival was an attempt to do something positive for all black people in America. It was an attempt to celebrate Black life. So, the Festival showcased African performers, Caribbean performers, Gospel singers, Latin drummers, R&B and Soul crooners, integrated bands such as Sly and the Family Stone, male and female acts, poets and instrumentalists…they all had their moment. And, into the environment, to close out a Festival that celebrated black performers in front of a black audience numbering into the hundreds of thousands, strode NIna Simone.
Simone was originally a pianist. She showed much talent as a child and, as a result, her community banded together to raise the money for tuition for her to enter the Julliard School of the Arts. From there, as a young woman, she began playing “the Devil’s music” in Jazz clubs; soon developing a musical style that was smoky and sultry in nature. Simone was always aware of the role of race in how her career ambitions played out. As a result, she became an outspoken activist during he 1960s which endeared her to her fellow blacks but, which alienated her from white American audiences.
Simone championed the poetry of black poet, Langston Hughes and she befriended black playwright, Lorraine Hansberry (The author of a famous play called, “A Raisin in the Sun”). The title of the play, “A Raisin in the Sun” comes from a line in a Langston Hughes poem called, “A Dream Deferred” which is, essentially, about the dreams that black parents have for their children and what happens to those dreams when the reality of life as a black person in America hits home. Nina Simone took that idea and wrote a song called, “Young, Gifted and Black” and sang it in front of fifty thousand black faces to close out The Harlem Cultural Festival. “Young, Gifted and Black” is, at once, a glowing, praised-filled song about how beautiful and full of promise black children are. But, it is sung with the full knowledge of all involved as to what the reality of their lives will probably turn out to be like. It is a powerhouse performance and serves as a fitting conclusion to a wonderful documentary. Questlove should be very proud of what he has managed to accomplish with “The Summer of Soul”. It is fantastic!
I will leave the trailer for the documentary below. Unfortunately, I cannot find the video of Nina Simone that is in the film but, I will give you a video of her singing it from another performance, just so you can hear her words. FYI, when you watch the video for the trailer for the film, Nina Simone is the proud, strong black woman at the very beginning of the clip. Overall, I highly recommend “The Summer of Soul”. The joyousness of all involved in this event is something that fills me up. It is wonderful to be where you feel you belong, in the company of those who are beautiful in your eyes. This is the atmosphere that Questlove has managed to capture in this film.
So, without further delay, here is “Young, Gifted and Black” by the incomparable, Nina Simone. Check out the trailer for “Summer of Soul”, too. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone, can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer for “Summer of Soul” by Questlove, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Nina Simone, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Questlove, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP for supporting the best of music from across all genres. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.