Sam Cooke's Granddaughter Nicole Says She Is a 'Steward' of His Legacy: 'I Do It with Pride'

 In honor of the soul legend's 90th birthday, Sam Cooke's granddaughter Nicole Cooke-Johnson tells PEOPLE about the work of keeping his memory alive

Nicole Cooke
Nicole Cooke. Photo: Courtesy Nicole Cooke

In honor of what would have been legendary soul singer and civil rights activist Sam Cooke's 90th birthday, his granddaughter, Nicole Cooke-Johnson, is doing a "toast" to her grandfather.

The Sam Cooke estate, Royalty Firm LLC, is holding a virtual "Toast to Sam Cooke" to celebrate the singer-songwriter. Celebrities from all walks of life — including Rod Stewart, Leslie Jordan, Jennifer Hudson, Leona Lewis, James Bay and director of One Night in Miami, Regina King — are all set to participate on social media.

"The people who were responding to participating in his toast for his birthday this weekend — I was shocked," Cooke-Johnson tells PEOPLE. "To see all of the artists, all of the people who were influenced by him ... I wish I could tell you all the countless stories I had about how his music has impacted people or influenced them."

In King's recent film, One Night in Miami, Leslie Odom Jr. brings the musician to life, and Cooke-Johnson says she was amazed by the entire cast and crew.

"Seeing that movie for us was the climax of our pride because it showcased Sam's brand amazingly," says Cooke-Johnson. "When they cast Leslie Odom Jr., there could not have been a better person to have played his part."

Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Aldis Hodge star in ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
From left: Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke, Eli Goree as Muhammad Ali, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X and Aldis Hodge as James Brown. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

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Regarded as one of the greatest soul singers of all time, Cooke's songs like "You Send Me," "Twistin the Night Away," and renowned single and civil rights anthem, "A Change Is Gonna Come," have racked up several honors and awards, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award and a Grammy Museum Exhibit coming later this year.

As the chief executive officer of his estate, Cooke-Johnson says the work she does fills her with pride as it's an honor for her to carry on the memory of her grandfather.

"As soon as I knew about anything, I knew about music in this family," says Cooke-Johnson. "And as soon as I knew about music, my grandfather's impact on the music business just in general has always been a part of my understanding of music."


"A Change Is Gonna Come" — which was an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s and again today for the Black Lives Matter movement — is just one of the ways Cooke's impact and legacy has carried on throughout time.

Cooke-Johnson shares that while the relevance of the song today shows that Black Americans are facing the same battles as they did in the past, the reliance on community and music is what gets her through these difficult times.

sam cooke
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

"And I think that that's why we're seeing so many artists come together and seeing 'A Change Is Gonna Come' performances in different places. They use that as their marker that things will get better," says Cooke-Johnson. "While things may be in a hard place, I think all of us today after experiencing yesterday's inauguration, all kind of feel that breath of fresh air. That hope I think was used to write a song like 'A Change Is Gonna Come.' The idea that while we may go through a lot, change eventually will always come."

She and her son, Vonce Johnson II, 22, got to see just how impactful this anthem and Cooke's legacy has been throughout American history when they took a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2017. Cooke-Johnson says it was a powerful experience for her family and one she commemorates with a picture in her living room.

Sam Cooke Museum
Courtesy Nicole Cooke

"That picture and that moment will forever resonate for us," says Cooke-Johnson. "I mean that for us — not only for our culture. For us as a family, for the legacy that we're striving to provide, I mean that is what was the moment for us."

In 2021, Cooke-Johnson is keeping her grandfather's memory alive by launching a new initiative during Black History Month called the Sam Cooke "Changemakers." The estate will highlight those who are creating change in "all facets of life."

As she passes down her family history to her son, she hopes that Cooke's passions and advocacy will be carried on by future generations.

"I think what's very important is that those before us remember to impact those that are coming after us," she says. "That's all legacy means: making sure that what we create in our time, we pass on to those that are coming after us."

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