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'Black Gold' At 50: How Nina Simone Refracted The Black Experience Through Reinterpreted Songs

Nina Simone in 1970

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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'Black Gold' At 50: How Nina Simone Refracted The Black Experience Through Reinterpreted Songs

The High Priestess of Soul took songs from Appalachia and the musical "Hair" and charged them with civil-rights poignancy

GRAMMYs/Jun 11, 2020 - 09:13 pm

When Black lives and needs are highlighted on the world stage, contrarians tend to crawl out of the woodwork in response. "Why can’t we celebrate White History Month?" they ask each February. "Don’t all lives matter?" they ask the rest of the year. This line of questioning is nothing new. More than 50 years ago, Nina Simone offered a rejoinder to bad-faith ideas of reverse inclusivity while onstage at Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall) in New York City.

"[This next song] is not addressed primarily to white people,” the singer-songwriter deadpanned. "It does not put you down in any way; it simply ignores you." The crowd burst into laughter, but Simone wasn’t joking: "My people need all the love and inspiration that they can get." Simone then laid into "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," a song meant to elevate and encourage Black intellects. "We must begin to tell our young / There’s a world waiting for you,” she appealed, abetted by the male vocal duo the Swordsmen.

That version of "Young, Gifted and Black"—which she co-wrote with lyricist Weldon Irvine in memory of "A Raisin In The Sun" playwright Lorraine Hansberry—appears at the end of Black Gold, Simone's album pulled from that 1969 concert. It was nominated for a Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female at the 13th Annual GRAMMY Awards and turns 50 this year. Aside from that song, the live album consists of canon-crossing covers Simone curated to refract her own meaning, such as "Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair," "Ain’t Got No, I Got Life," and "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?"

These songs are not typically associated with social issues; respectively, they’re an Appalachian folk song, a Sandy Denny tune and two cuts from the musical "Hair." But true to her skill as an interpreter, Simone turned these apolitical songs into unlikely vehicles for radical self-expression. "This is a quest that’s just begun," she sang on "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," but Simone was in the center of her own personal and political struggle that dovetailed with the nationwide struggle for racial equality. 

Four years earlier, she'd hollered her incendiary classic "Mississippi Goddamin front of 10,000 people near the end of the Selma to Montgomery March. Just one year prior, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on a hotel balcony. "We can’t afford any more losses," Simone said shakily while performing "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)" three days after Dr. King’s murder at Westbury Music Fair. Her voice grew tremulous: "Oh my god, they’re shooting us down one by one."

"As the civil rights movement really swung into high gear, she swung into high gear with it," Simone’s musical director and accompanist Al Schackman said in the 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? "To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world, Black people," she stated in an interview clip shown in the film. "My job is to make them more curious about where they came from, and their own identity, and pride in that identity. That’s why I try to make [my songs] as powerful as possible—mostly just to make them curious about themselves."

Black Gold shows how Simone not only made her songs powerful, but others' as well. She doesn’t offer specifics about her choice to open with "Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair," a traditional ballad that can be traced back to Scotland. But given the themes interwoven throughout the rest of the album—and its cover, in which Simone proudly sports an Afro—it's arguable she meant to cast natural hair as a crown of beauty. Simone wasn’t always magnanimous about this topic.

"You used to be talking about being natural and wearing natural hairstyles," Simone tartly told a Philadelphia audience in 1979, chiding Black women for making what she considered to be stereotypically Caucasian fashion choices. "Now you’re straightening your hair, rouging your cheeks and dressing out of Vogue."

Simone didn’t only address the topic of hair—she reinterpreted songs from "Hair." In 1968, when the musical first hit Broadway, she picked up on "Ain’t Got No" and "I Got Life" and she added them to her repertoire. Her mash-up of those two "Hair" tracks, one a lament ("Ain’t got no mother, ain’t got no culture / Ain’t got no friends, ain’t got no schoolin'") and the other an affirmation ("Got my hair, got my head / Got my brains, got my ears") is charged with connotations of Black oppression and liberation. 

The resulting "Ain’t Got No, I Got Life," which originally appeared on 1968’s ‘Nuff Said!, was a major hit in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The following year, the 5th Dimension’s "Medley: Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)" would embed "Hair" further into public consciousness. But Simone, as usual, was ahead of her time: "I did that tune ‘Ain’t Got No’ just when the show came out," she said on a promotional interview LP that accompanied Black Gold. "Long before ‘Aquarius’ and all of that."

Black Gold also features a cover of psychedelic folkies Fairport Convention's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" from their 1969 album Unhalfbricking. Sandy Denny wrote the wise-beyond-her-years ballad ("So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again / I have no fear of time / For who knows how my love grows?") when she was only 19; Simone was attracted to the song’s theme of self-examination.

"It’s a song not meant for me," she explained of "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" on Come Together With Nina. "I sing it to make people reflect about their lives. I know what I’m doing and why I must do it. And so time does not exist for me as it does for most people."

Simone certainly didn’t live like most people following the release of Black Gold. In 1970, believing that "Mississippi Goddam" and its ilk hurt rather than helped her career, she fled what she later called the "United Snakes of America" for Barbados. Then, in 1974, she relocated to Liberia, where, as What Happened, Miss Simone? lays out, her daughter Lisa Simone alleged she experienced physical and mental abuse from her mother. In the mid-1980s, Simone lived in various European cities, where she experienced a brief career resurgence before her death in 2003 at age 70.

Black Gold remains a nexus point in Simone’s life and career—between her early innovations and later provocations, between her incisiveness as a songwriter and her genius as an interpreter. "There’s a great deal of rapport between the audience and myself that has been missing in so many of the previous albums," she said of Black Gold on Come Together With Nina, adding, "There’s a great deal of electricity in this album."

Without a handful of brilliantly chosen, left-field covers as a conducting agent, that current may never have been transferred, her alchemy unachieved. But as usual, Simone made black become gold.

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

 
This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.

Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Brittany Howard

Photo: C Brandon/Redferns/Getty Images

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Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Proceeds from the event will be go toward loans to small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, via Accion Opportunity Fund

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 04:13 am

This Saturday, June 20, artists including Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz and more will come together for Small Business Live, a livestream fundraiser event for small businesses facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Proceeds from the livestream will go to Accion Opportunity Fund to support small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses.

“Entrepreneurs of color are denied credit more often and charged higher rates for money they borrow to fund their businesses. We need to accelerate support to underserved businesses in order to reach our full potential,” Accion Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia said. “We have to decide what we want our Main Streets to look like when this is over, and we must act decisively to keep small businesses alive and ready to rebuild. This is a fun way to do something really important. Everyone’s support will make a huge difference to small business owners, their families and employees who have been devastated by this pandemic, the recession, and centuries of racism, xenophobia and oppression.”

Tune in for Small Business Live Saturday, June 20 from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EDT on smallbiz.live. The site also provides a full schedule of programs and links to watch the livestream on all major digital platforms. To learn more about Accion Opportunity Fund, visit the organization's website.

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John Lennon, Sting, Alicia Keys: 7 Songs For Starting Over In 2018

John Lennon

Photo: Ron Howard/Redferns

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John Lennon, Sting, Alicia Keys: 7 Songs For Starting Over In 2018

With hits from Leonard Cohen, the Byrds, Nina Simone, and more, find the motivation for a brand-new you this New Year

GRAMMYs/Jan 4, 2018 - 11:12 pm

Each New Year offers the opportunity for a fresh new start, whether you're looking to wash away the sins of the previous year or reinvent a better future that follows your ultimate dreams. Starting over isn't an easy task, but we have one recommendation that will help motivate you: music.

Don't be a fuddy duddy. Kick-start 2018 with this playlist of seven songs all about starting over, including hits from John Lennon, the Byrds, Sting, and Alicia Keys, among others.

1. The Byrds, "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

Starting with its lyrics, "To everything (turn, turn, turn)/There is a season," this GRAMMY Hall Of Fame classic is a great reminder that everything is always changing anyway, so now is as good a time as any to give something new a chance. The composition was written by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s, but the lyrics come almost verbatim from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. The song didn't hit it big until the Byrds got their turn at it in 1965. Reportedly, it took Roger McGuinn & Co. 78 takes to perfect their folk-rock arrangement.

2. Leonard Cohen, "Anthem"

GRAMMY winner Leonard Cohen had a knack for poetry powerful enough to move mountains, and his "Anthem" is one such gem. This 1992 tune about embracing imperfection and marching forward in the face of adversity contains one of Cohen's most-quoted lines: "Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." And we'll leave you with one final line from the master that encapsulates starting over: "The birds they sing, at the break of day/Start again, I heard them say/Don't dwell on what has passed away/Or what is yet to be."

3. Gil Scott-Heron, "I'm New Here"

Taken from his 2010 album of the same name, "I'm New Here" came near the end of Gil Scott-Heron's storied life. The album saw Scott-Heron, according to Drowned In Sound's Robert Ferguson, "pick over the bones of his life, acknowledging the hard times and his own mistakes, but standing proud of all they have led him to become." Embodying this sentiment accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, Scott-Heron's bluesy, semi-spoken "I'm New Here" brings out the poignancy of change. Its key lyric, "No matter how far wrong you've gone/You can always turn around," is something to keep in mind year-round, let alone January.

4. Alicia Keys, "Brand New Me"

Alicia Keys went full bore on the empowering messages of her 2012 album, Girl On Fire —  the Best R&B Album winner at the 56th GRAMMY Awards — including the track, "Brand New Me." Co-written with singer/songwriter Emeli Sandé, the soft pop/R&B ballad describes growing as a person and becoming a brand-new version of yourself. "Brand new me is about the journey it takes to get to a place where you are proud to be a new you," Keys wrote on her website at the time of the song's release.

5. John Lennon, "(Just Like) Starting Over"

A quintessential start-anew song, former Beatle John Lennon included "(Just Like) Starting Over" on his GRAMMY-winning 1980 album, Double Fantasy. "(Just Like) Starting Over" was the album's first single because Lennon felt it best represented his return following a five-year hiatus from music. It's also a love song, but the theme of starting over has a universal resonance "It's time to spread our wings and fly/Don't let another day go by my love/It'll be just like starting over." It became Lennon's second chart-topping single in the U.S., reaching No. 1 after his death on Dec. 8, 1980.

6. Nina Simone, "Feeling Good"

"It's a new dawn/It's a new day/It's a new life for me/I'm feelin' good." Could you ask for better lyrics for embarking on a new journey? Nina Simone recorded her version of "Feeling Good," which was originally written for the musical "The Roar Of The Greasepaint — The Smell Of The Crowd," on her 1965 album I Put A Spell On You. While artists such as Michael Bublé, John Coltrane, George Michael, and Muse subsequently covered it, no alternative is quite as powerful — or soulful — as Simone's.

7. Sting, "Brand New Day"

Sting's "Brand New Day" has a lesson for inspiring motivation to start the New Year with fresh eyes: "Turn the clock to zero, buddy/Don't wanna be no fuddy-duddy/We started up a brand new day." The bright, catchy pop tune and its namesake 1999 album resonated with fans, landing it at No. 9 on the Billboard 200. The track (and album) earned Sting GRAMMYs — Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and Best Pop Album — at the 42nd GRAMMY Awards.

What's Your New Year's Music Resolution?

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Samantha Smith and John Legend

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle and John Legend take home Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 27, 2020 - 09:05 am

DJ Khaled, featuring Nipsey Hussle and John Legend, has won Best Rap/Sung Performance for "Higher" at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards. The single was featured on DJ Khaled's 2019 album Father of Asahd and featured Hussle's vocals and Legend on the piano. DJ Khaled predicted the track would win a GRAMMY.

"I even told him, 'We're going to win a GRAMMY.' Because that's how I feel about my album," DJ Khaled told Billboard. "I really feel like not only is this my biggest, this is very special."

After the release of the song and music video -- which was filmed before Hussle's death in March -- DJ Khaled announced all proceeds from "Higher" will go to Hussle's children.

DJ Khaled and co. beat out fellow category nominees Lil Baby & Gunna ("Drip Too Hard"), Lil Nas X ("Panini"), Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch ("Ballin") and Young Thug featuring J. Cole & Travis Scott ("The London"). Hussle earned a second posthumous award at the 62nd GRAMMYs for Best Rap Performance for "Racks In The Middle." 

Along with Legend and DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch and YG paid tribute to Hussle during the telecast, which concluded with "Higher."

Check out the complete 62nd GRAMMY Awards nominees and winners list here.