When Nina Simone sang “To Be Young Black and Gifted”, she inspired the civil rights anthem of the 1970’s. The lyrics were simple, yet the empowering nature of the message resonated with a Black population striving for a better day:“When you feel really low. Yeah, there’s a great truth you should know. When you’re young, gifted and black, your soul’s intact.” The man who wrote those words (despite possesing a great voice of his own) remained behind the scenes, as artists like Aretha Franklin performed his song to widespread aclaim. The subject of music is rarely discussed when it comes to the history of Black liberation. Yet for those that still doubt the impact of music within the civil right movement, it was Martin Luther King who said: “These freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle” and ‘‘We are in bondage, these songs add hope to our determination that ‘we shall overcome’.” Through his ability to connect with people, Weldon Irvine carried that movement into the 1970’s, displaying an ability for song writing which broke down prejudice. Despite always being the man in the background, this Food 4 Thought is dedicated to Weldon, the musician Mos Def described as “an artist without borders”.
“Nina Simone – To Be Young, Gifted & Black”
“I was deeply honored when I first came to work with Nina. I had respected her work for years prior to having met her face-to-face. It was much more than just a casual case of my being a sideman in the band, it was a complete and total learning experience for me, not only musically but in so many other areas. And I just absorbed so much from the woman primarily because she is a staunch perfectionist. The total aspect of her art is perfection, and I learned that I am not far from being a perfectionist myself, because the whole time I was with her it was my sole interest and intention to please in a musical capacity.”
– Weldon Irvine
You could say he got his talents from his father, who was a practising musician in Baltimore, except his dad was always a distant figure in his life. When Weldon was 2, his parents divorced and due to a number of unfortunate circumstances, he went to live with his grandparents. He grew up in what he described as a “slum neighborhood”, like many people growing up in tough conditions, he was forced to fend for himself and developed a tough outward persona. He developed a fascination with collecting weapons that would continue into his adult life. This however was a way to protect himself as his music was always soft and uplifitng in tone. A 1975 documentary revealed a shy and inward thinking man with a gift for writing.
According to his peers, what set Weldon apart from other great artists was his ability to embrace modern trends such as hip-hop. He was at his most prolific in the 70’s, releasing 7 soul albums over the decade, achieving modest sales yet high acclaim. A quick look at the titles will give you an insight into the forward thinking nature of his artistry. “Time Capsule”, “Cosmic Vortex” and “Spirit Man” were just some of the names he choose to accompany his work. His 1979 album “The Sisters” featured a song called “Morning Sunrise”, it became his most notable impact on hip-hop culture. A melodic soul track that has now been sampled by Jay-Z, Lupe Fiasco and The Game . The structure of the piece remained virtually unchanged from the original instrumental, demonstrating Weldon’s interchangable sound from the past to modern era.
In the 90’s Weldon embraced hip-hop. Becoming a mentor to artists such as Q-Tip, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. He helped form the ‘Rawkus sound’ by encouraging artists to use real live instrumentation, even playing the piano on “Astronomy” from the “Black Star” album. Weldon proved that music could be used for political activism, teaching artists on the importance of remaining true to themselvs as well as projecting a message. The Soulquarian movement owes a lot to Irvine, he was sampled by A Trible Called Quest on “Award Tour” and other artists to do the same include KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions. He served as the musical director for Mos Def’s classic album “Black On Both Sides”. A famous story goes that in exchange for piano lessons, Common and Q-Tip would teach Weldon how to rap. As an emcee he went under the name “Master Wel” and would perform at open mic events and night clubs. He is one of the few artists to have work with such diverse acts as Ice Cube and Miles Davis. His final gift to the World was his 1999 hip-hop album “The Price Of Freedom – The Amadou Project”.
In New York, 1999, 23 year old Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by 4 plain clothes police officers. Even though he was unarmed, the officers mistook him for a serial rapist who they later found elsewhere. Despite such horrific police brutality, none of the officers were ever convicted of any crime. This prompted widespread outrage amongst the Black community. Master Wel dedicated an entire album to Amado, including voice overs from Diallo’s parents. Musically the LP switches between Jazz, Spoken Word and Hip-Hop with Q-Tip making a rare appearance alongside Black Star.
It seems a strange occurrence that a commemorative album such as this would be Weldon’s last. In 2002, Weldon took his own life outside of the EAB plaza in New York. To this day many people blame the record industry for his demise. The location of his suicide was chosen as his record companies offices were based within close proximity. Despite an entitlement to money, he had been refused an advance, this left him in dire straits financially. He tried to sell his backwriting catalogue but was met with harsh industry politics refusing to enter into negotiations. In a cruel twist of fate, he would get his own commerative album in 2004, when Madlib dedicated an entire album to him called “A Tribute To Brother Weldon”.
Today, artists like Aloe Blacc help blur the line between soul music and hip-hop. But it is figures like Master Wel who paved the way for the interchangeable nature of the two genres. Sampling is often criticised as a lazy and parasitic form of music. Critics seek to pit hip-hop against the soul music it supposedly steals from. Yet it was the hip-hop community that honoured Weldon Irvine when the rest of the World forgot him. And it was artists like Jay-Z who brought a new generation of listeners to his genius. Going against all convention, the love was mutual.