There will never be an artist quite like Donny Hathaway. Only he could shape a song of social uplift with such solemnity. Underneath those melancholic overtures, Hathaway possessed a budding optimism, capturing his beautifully human struggle to stay afloat. It was on this song, comprised of bold piano strokes and soul-wrenching organ wails that Hathaway took us to church.
It was in 1970 that Nina Simone first told us what it was like to be young, gifted, and most importantly, black. Penning the anthemic tune, along with oft overlooked Weldon Irvine, Simone captained this vessel with upbeat notions of black self-worth. Her song carried a buoyancy that left the bastion of persecuted darker hued folks in this country with an unwavering assuredness that they were worth much more than what society had too often told them.
But when Hathaway approached, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” he did so from a position of hesitancy. It’s a concept that perhaps only Hathaway had the ability to encapsulate. In his troubled spirit was a voice that managed to pour out several hundred years of psychological oppression.
Initially, the song works against a steady backdrop. But slowly it begins to build, along with a more aggressive instrumental and the stirring strength of an emoting choir. The greatest change, however, is found in Hathaway. As the song reaches its apex, Hathaway forgoes the righteous feel of Simone as we find our vocalist falling into what is almost a plea. He sounds desperate—begging for a deserved humanity that had been denied far too long. As he adlibs, “I ain’t tryin’ to bring down no one else.” The song—his vocals, the players, and the choir—are completely engulfed in a very real moment of steady human emotion. It’s a powerful moment best reflecting the time in which it was created. Never have we heard Donny Hathaway quite like this.
During a time in which hip-hop’s elite pour out verse upon verse aggrandizing the idea of a supposed regality and black bourgeoisie, I am led back to something conceptualized many years ago. Before this theoretical throne was even acknowledged by this generation’s black bards, Donny Hathaway captured the idea of “black excellence” with an unparalleled sincerity—fitted in a weariness that ran common in his generation. Anyone can sing a song about real life. Only a select can few show us real life through song. This is genius at work.