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FREEDOM NOW AND OTHER JAMS, PART 3

Whitey's on the Moon

 “I play Black classical music,” singer/songwriter Nina Simone once said. “I don’t like the term ‘jazz’… It’s a term that’s simply used to identify Black people.” Regardless of what it was called, Simone’s work earned her the protest-music crown.

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina, she studied classical piano at Juilliard for a year in preparation for applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Her “dream school” denied her admission, however, a slight she attributed to racial discrimination.

Simone debuted on record in 1959 with Little Girl Blue at the age of 26. She went on to marry pop and gospel vocals to classical music, developing a jazzy sound she took to a European distributor, the Netherlands-based Philips Records, which released a series of albums from 1964 to 1967 that reflected a profound evolution of her musical output.

Nina Simone in Concert, issued in 1964, featured “Mississippi Goddam,” a straightforward condemnation of the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the church bombing that killed four Black girls in Alabama, both of which occurred in 1963. Simone called it her “first civil rights song.” It was boycotted in some Southern states; one radio station smashed the vinyl and returned the shards to Philips. An unabashed Black nationalist, Simone was soon revered in the African-American community and around the world for songs like “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (inspired by Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry), “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” (mourning Martin Luther King Jr.), “Backlash Blues” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”

Among those marching in after Simone kicked down the door was Gil Scott-Heron. He was more poet than singer, however, more of a Black Bob Dylan than a male Nina Simone. Born in Chicago in 1949, he is a forefather of both hip-hop and spoken-word.

In the liner notes to his debut al-bum, 1970’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Scott-Heron recognizes not only Simone but Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Malcolm X and Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” stands as his greatest protest, its title becoming a cultural touchstone.

Never strictly a jazz artist but deeply influenced by jazz, he could nonetheless be counted on for trenchant political commentary. Scott-Heron took on Ronald Reagan twice (“B Movie” and “Re-Ron”), assayed Apartheid (the boisterous “Johannesburg”), mulled the dangers of nuclear power (“We Almost Lost Detroit”) and, in “Winter in America,” captured the weight of despair under right-wing rule.

Kanye West’s use of Scott-Heron’s “Comment #1” as the closing track of his 2010 masterwork My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the presence of “Whitey on the Moon” in a pivotal scene from the Oscar-winning 2018 Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, among other appearances, testify to Scott-Heron’s continued relevance.

Go here for Part 4: The Remix.

LISTEN: OUR BHM 2021 "FREEDOM SUITE" PLAYLIST

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GRAMMY CHEW: AOTY WILD CARDS
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NEAR TRUTHS:
THE LUCIAN DECADE
A history lesson from I.B. Bad (9/23a)
SIR LUCIAN TURNS IT UP
As UMG goes solo, Grainge discusses leading the band. (9/20a)
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A chronicle of the inexplicable.
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We make yet more predictions, which you are free to ignore.
2022 TOURS
May we all be vaxxed by then.
ROCK'S NEW CHAPTER
Power pop, global glam and the return of the loud.
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