This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.
By the early 1960s, Nina Simone was well-known to the world as a singer, songwriter and classically trained pianist. But around 1963, as race relations in America hit a boiling point, she made a sharp turn in her music — toward activism.
First, there was the murder of Medgar Evers that summer. The civil rights leader was killed by a Klansman, shot in the back in his own driveway in Mississippi. Three months later, in Birmingham, Ala., four black girls were killed in a church bombing. In response to the grief and outrage, Simone wrote a powerful song with unsparing lyrics and a provocative title: “Mississippi Goddam.”
Then, in 1968, she identified a different side of the struggle. The Black Power movement was rising. Pride in being black and beautiful was expressed in big afros and raised fists. She aimed to capture that moment of joy in black identity — and though the song she wrote was addressed to children, it became an anthem for adults, too.
And then, in January 1965, Hansberry died of cancer at the age of 34. A few months before, she had told a group of student essay winners, “I wanted to be able to come here and speak with you on this occasion because you are young, gifted and black.”
Those words stuck in Nina Simone’s head. In an interview recorded at historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, she said, “I remember getting a feeling in my body, and I said, ‘That’s it: to be young, gifted and black. That’s all.’ And sat down at the piano and made up a tune. It just flowed out of me.”
Simone wrote the music, while the words came from her bandleader, Weldon Irvine. He reportedly sat writing the lyrics in his car, tying up a busy New York City intersection for 15 minutes as he scribbled on napkins and a matchbook cover. Simone had told him to keep it simple — write something that “will make black children all over the world feel good about themselves, forever.”
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” caught on, and other artists quickly recorded it. Soul singer Donny Hathaway released a cover of the song in 1970. Aretha Franklin made own version the title track of an album she released in 1972.