“To Be Young, Gifted and Black”: What history does this phrase present to us? Nina Simone popularized the saying in her 1970 track dedicated to the late Lorraine Hansberry, who coined the phrase. The song became a staple in the community covered by prominent artists like Aretha Franklin. Earlier this year, Rolling Stone listed Aretha Franklin as the best singer of all time, proving that her impact as an artist is still outstanding. Both Simone and Franklin embody this phrase by being unapologetically black.
Within every era of African American history, there is music that reflects it. The Black Freedom Movement of the mid-1900s inspired the incorporation of gospel and soul into popular music. You can hear the trials that the black citizens faced at the time in the music. Sam Cooke’s 1964 track “A Change is Gonna Come” immediately became an anthem for the fight for equality. With the single being released just two weeks after his death, the plea for peace felt much stronger. One of the saddest yet most hopeful songs born during the Civil Rights era, “A Change is Gonna Come,” is one of Cooke’s best-written works. The lyrics tug on the heartstrings of any listener, alluding to religion, race, and both the future and the past: “It’s been too hard livin’ / But I’m afraid to die / ‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there / Beyond the sky.” Cooke’s vocals reveal a tiredness behind the desire to move forward; though he sounds defeated, he has not given up. A strong orchestra backs the singer, adding power to his words and depth to the grieving tone. The horns grow stronger as Cooke sings about the confrontations that he and others like him had to face wherever they went. A perfect composition as such led to other artists using their pain in their music.
Motown Records, a.k.a. “Hitsville U.S.A.,” dominated the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, producing artists that defined a generation. Not only did they sign the previously mentioned singer Sam Cooke, but also The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, and many more. Motown had a distinct sound: gospel meets pop. These artists were fearless in experimenting with their sound. Stevie Wonder has created some of the most fun love songs that are bound to be played at any wedding. “For Once in My Life” never fails to bring a smile to the face of even the least romantic lister. Wonder understood the scarcity of true love and translated that into his lyrics: “For once I can touch what my heart used to dream of / Long before I knew / Ooh, someone warm like you / Would make my dreams come true.” This is what Motown was all about, showcasing all that the black community experiences and not just the pains of discrimination. Marvin Gaye was another prominent alumnus of Motown Records. He and Tammi Terrell were a powerhouse duo, creating songs like “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Motown Records created an environment that encouraged newness while keeping in touch with the culture.
As the late 20th century was coming close, disco was the hottest genre, and Donna Summer was the queen. It was impossible not to break out into dance whenever her voice was on the radio (pun intended). Disco was loved all over the world, but black artists had a specialty when it came to dance music. Summer’s mark on disco was so influential that artists are still paying homage to her, like Beyoncé’s “SUMMER RENAISSANCE” sampling Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Everyone was trying out disco: Gaye, Ross, and, of course, Michael Jackson.
“Michael Jackson” – we all know the name. The King of Pop has been influential for decades, starting with The Jackson 5 in the ‘70s, but established his place as an icon later in the 20th century. He didn’t receive this accolade with ease, which Prince made sure of. This rivalry caused the two artists to revolutionize pop. Jackson took stardom to another level; his voice, his dancing, and his stage presence allowed him to become the legend that he is. But, what truly established Jackson’s significance were the issues he spoke out against in his music. He doesn’t hold back in “Black or White”: “And I told ‘em about equality / And it’s true either you’re wrong or you’re right.” His blatant take against any form of racism was a key factor in other artists doing the same; Jackson gave the courage to other black musicians to use their voice for good.
The ‘90s were all about innovation. Black artists were pushing boundaries, creating sounds that had never been heard before. The R&B girls were taking over: Destiny’s Child, TLC, Lauryn Hill, Aaliyah, Erykah Badu, and Janet Jackson to name a few. They introduced a sensual tone to a heavily pop and alternative rock era. Partnering R&B, rap gained a ridiculous amount of attention, especially because of the rivalries between west coast and east coast artists. West coast rappers like Tupac and Snoop Dogg had a chill style to their music, while east coast rappers like Biggie and Nas were more expressive. This competitiveness inspired these artists to get even better as the decade went on. The groups took a different approach, focusing solely on bringing attention to issues. Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, and N.W.A gave voices to those that were silenced by those in power. N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton gained a lot of attention without even releasing a single because of its vengeful lyrics: “F*** the police comin’ straight from the underground / A young n**** got it bad cause I’m brown.” Their focus on police brutality sparked controversy, because who would be crazy enough to insult law enforcement? But N.W.A didn’t care about pleasantries, they spoke the truth no matter who fought against it.
There are many artists who exemplify exactly what it means to be “Young, Gifted and Black” that I wish I could go further in-depth, but this article would be way too long. Their passion for music was evident from the start. They took whatever preconceived notions their audience had about them and threw them to the side; discriminatory beliefs were not going to hold them back. Music within the black community is unlike anything else; it’s personal and authentic, creating a culture that has and will continue to influence generations.