Nina Simone: She Cast a Spell
—and Made a Choice
By Mark Anthony Neal
SeeingBlack.com Music Critic
On the frequent six-
to seven-hour trips I take to Philadelphia, my regular road
buddy has been by daughter, Iyana, who recently turned 11.
We make the time fly by with bonding conversations
as she calls them and by singing loudly to the songs of our
favorite road artists: the Gap Band, James Brown, Prince,
Parliament Funkadelic, Taj Mahal, India Arie, Santana, Olu
Dara and the Coasters. She also tunes me out occasionally
and listens with headphones on her own CD player to N Sync
and the Dixie Chicks.
In April, she got interested in tapes I had
put together of my favorite singer, Nina Simone. What a coincidence,
because Nina died April 21, in Carry-le-Rouet, France, of
natural causes, just a couple of weeks after Iyana had added
her to our travel-music repertoire.
The music we listened to offered me an opportunity
to talk history and politics to Iyana because a lot of Nina
's work includes "message" tunes, and Iyana wanted
to know all about those messages. They included Nina's rendition
of "Sunday in Savannah," a song-portrait in tribute
to Martin Luther King Jr.; "To Be Young, Gifted and Black,"
a tribute to black youth and Playwright Lorraine Hansberry;
and "Four Women," a Nina original that recalls African-American
history through the description of four women of different
It also included songs with more tragic messages,
like Billy Holiday's "Strange Fruit," about a lynching;
and Nina 's chilling version of Bob Dylon's "The Ballad
of Hollis Brown," about a South Dakota farmer who lost
his mind to poverty and bad luck and committed suicide after
killing his wife and five children.
Nina was a significant discovery for Iyana
because when Nina died at 70 a couple of weeks later, she
felt that she had gotten to know the songstress on her own.
"I'm glad I got to listen to her sing," she told
Now, to be completely honest, Nina was also
a prima-donna diva who made me angry as hell on a number of
occasions. I'll note just one: My travel 90 miles from Philly
to New York for a midnight concert at Carnegie Hall, only
to have the concert cancelled 30 minutes after midnight because
Nina refused to perform. Word was that she had gone to lunch
earlier that day after rehearsals and had been refused return
entrance to the theater when a security guard didn 't recognize
Somehow, though, I understood that it was
all about respect. And I continued to pay huge ticket prices
for her performances over the years. After all, she had been
my hero since the late '50s, crafting original songs and personal
renditions of the songs of others that interpreted perfectly
the pains we suffered from racial discrimination and the joys
we felt from racial pride. Nina would grab hold of a tune
called "West Wind" for example, chant its chorus
("unify us, don't divide us") for 15 minutes or
more, make us hold hands and hug one another until there wasn't
a dry eye in the theater.
"Mississippi Goddamn," on
the other hand, made us defiant and determined to bring justice
to the segregated South.
Indeed, she was a child of an age of radical
change, having been born in Tryon, N.C., during the Great
Depression, a part of the Northern Migration north during
the '40s, and a leader in the movement for socially conscious
art in the '60s and '70s.
And being a dark-skin woman with African features,
who frequently wore her hair naturally, she had suffered many
insults about beauty and blackness. In fact, though, she was
a naturally beautiful woman, who enchanted us with her almond-shaped
face, high forehead, full lips, and large, liquid eyes.
But now comes an alarming email message from
a friend—another Nina devotee, who teaches in the Baltimore
school system and used Nina's death as an opportunity to introduce
her students to her work.
"I spent a whole lesson on her
with my students," she writes. "One of the first
things they said upon seeing her photograph in The New
York Times was, 'Why she so ugly?' What does that say
about us in 2003? Of the Black Arts/Black Power/Black is Beautiful
movement? Of the demons that stalked Simone throughout her
Iyana is a beautiful little woman. People
tell her this all the time. And her features and skin color
are closer to Nina 's than they are to other well-known black
celebrities. This is why her discovery of Nina will, I hope,
be even more important to her years from now, and why I 've
written this column.
She has asked me a few times now, why I haven
't written about her. Well, Baby Girl, here it is. You, like
Nina Simone, have touched by soul and lifted my spirits in
ways that I hope you will fully understand some day. Nina's
art lives in beautiful people like you.
about Nina Simone and Black music! Click here!
I could do what you do, EASY! Believe me / Frontin'
niggaz gives me heebe-geebes / So while you imitatin' Al Capone
/ I be Nina Simone and defecating on your microphone
— Lauryn Hill,
"Ready Or Not"
My skin is Black, My arms are long / My hair
is wooly, My back is strong / Strong enough to take the pain /
Afflicted again and again / What do they call me?
— Nina Simone,
She was the voice of a movement. Deep blues, even
darker hues, from the Delta to Dakar. When the old guard (Stokely
and Martin and Ralph and dem)—in the days before Aretha—talked
about the "voice" of the movement, they always invoked
Nina Simone, Ms. Simone to all those who couldn't wrap their minds
around this woman, Black woman, protest woman, iconical woman, the
one woman whose very voice summoned the spirits of the Middle Passage,
of those under the overseer's lash, of that charred fruit hanging
from southern trees. — the sprits of blues whisperers, sacred
singers, heavenly shouters and insatiable desires. This woman, Black
woman, was the voice of a people.
When Nina Simone died quietly in her home in southern
France on 21 April 2003, the spiritual essence of three generations
of freedom fighters passed on to the otherworld the proverbial crossroads
with her. With a voice that embodied the pain and power of the scattered
African diaspora and classic West African facial features that suggested
a short distance between the Tyron, North Carolina of her birth
and Kwame Nkrumuh's Ghana, Nina Simone couldn't help being political.
Listening to her sing "My Baby Cares for Me" from her
debut recording Little Girl Blue (1959), one has to pause
as she utters the line "Liz Taylor is not his style".
Coming from the mouth of this woman Black, her invocation of "America's
Sweetheart" was indeed a celebratory gesture towards the beauty
of Black women. (In an ironic reversal, the song was featured in
a 1987 Chanel ad campaign.) Simone's only Top 20 recording, Gershwin's
"I Loves You Porgy", was drawn from that first album.
By the early 1960s, Simone's music began to more directly echo
the tenor of the times. Once the darling of the supper club set,
Simone was more and more likely to be found performing at a Civil
Rights fundraiser. Simone was brought into the movement at the behest
of her good friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin
in the Sun). It was because of her experiences with the movement
that Simone wrote and recorded her most potent critique of American
racism. As she recounts in her autobiography I Put a Spell on
You, she was dramatically moved by the bombing of the 16th Street
Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four little
Black girls. The attack took place less than three weeks after the
March on Washington and marked a turning point in the Civil Rights
movement as most of the movement's major figures, notably Martin
Luther King, Jr. and SNCC's Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) were
pushed closer to radicalism. Simone restrained her own rage —
she purportedly wanted to go out in the streets and shoot some White
folks — and transformed that rage into the scathing political
tome "Mississippi Goddam". The song was recorded live
at Carnegie Hall in March of 1964. Simone's career her access to
the super club set—would be radically altered by the recording.
At the beginning of the song, she announces "the name of this
tune is 'Mississippi Goddamn'. And I mean every word of it,"
as her largely White audience laughs at her comments. The
brilliance of the song lies in the way she initially destabilized
the immediate reception of the song, by placing the song's lyrics
on top of a swinging show tune beat. It was as if the song was performed
to the music of the "Sambo Shuffle" — that moment
when Sambo decides to stop "shuckin' and jivin'" and actually
starts to speak "truth to power." The audience is still
laughing with Simone after she sings the opening chorus ("Alabama's
got me so upset / Tennessee makes me lose my rest / And everybody
knows about Mississippi, Goddam") and states that "this
is show tune, but the show hasn't been written for it yet."
But this is where the song, and its reception, changes. Simone rips
into America's race policy, simmering as she sings "don't tell
me, I tell you / Me and my people just about due / I've been there
so I know / You keep on saying go slow," a reference, in part,
to the Brown vs. The Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas) Supreme
Court decision which urged the desegregation of American public
schools with the oxymoronic notion of "all deliberate speed".
The audience is dead silent after the verse, a fact that Simone
acknowledges, when she says to the crowd "bet you thought I
was kidding". The moment seemed to only fuel the fury brewing
underneath Simone's performance up to that point. When she starts
singing "This whole country is full of lies / You all gonna
die, die like flies," it is clear that she is in a space, in
opposition to the non-violent stance of the mainstream Civil Right
Movement, and one that portended the violence in American cities
like Los Angeles (Watts), Newark and Detroit in the coming years.
Though contemporary audiences often miss the significance of Simone's
rejection of the religiosity of the Civil Right Movement the woman
publicly uttered Goddamn and openly questioned the value
of prayer or the risk she took at the time with her critique., the
reality is that better known and celebrated challenges to power,
like NWA's "F*ck the Police" could not have occurred without
Simone's brave stance. (the Dixie Chicks must have made her proud
in her last days) Literally all of the mainstream protest music
recorded by Black artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like
Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf
Agin)", The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion", Freda
Payne's "Bring the Boys Home", Roberta Flack's "Compared
to What?," Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, and Stevie
Wonder's Innervisions, were indebted to "Mississippi
Goddamn". Simone would record other Black protest anthems like
Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free,"
which had been a long-time favorite of protest marchers, and "Why?
(The King of Love is Dead)," her musical eulogy to Martin Luther
King, Jr. But, as a Black woman, Simone also spoke to burgeoning
Black feminist and Womanist movements.
Well before theorists discussed the realities of Black postmodern
identities, Simone presented a portrait of Black femininity that
spoke to various intersections of race, color, caste, sexuality
and gender. I have little doubt that Nina Simone's "Four Women"
was somewhere in the consciousnesses of Hortense Spillers and Kimberle
Crenshaw, when they wrote their ground-breaking critical essays
"Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book"
(1987) and "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex:
A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist
Theory and Antiracist Politics" (1989), respectively. In the
song, Simone discusses the different though linked realities of
Aunt Sarah ("my skin is black…my hair is wooly, my back
is strong"), Saphronia ("my skin is yellow, my hair is
long. Between two worlds I do belong"), Sweet Thing ("My
skin is tan, my hair in fine, my hips invite you . . ."), and
Peaches ("My skin is brown, my manner is tough, I'll kill the
first mother I see"). The four women, represented what Patricia
Hill-Collins would later describe in her book Black Feminist
Thought (1990), as the "controlling images" of Black
womanhood. Specifically mentioning Aunt Sarah, Saphronia, and Sweet
Thing, Hill-Collins writes, "Simone explores Black women's
objectification as the Other by invoking the pain these women actually
Hip-hop artists Talib Kweli Greene (with Hi-Tek) paid tribute to
Nina Simone's feminist vision on his recording Reflection Eternal
(2000). Talib Kweli's "For Woman" updates the legacies
of Aunt Sarah, Saphronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches, taking into
account the affects of Reaganism, crack cocaine addictions and the
rampant spread of HIV infections. Michael Eric Dyson notes in his
new book Open Mike: Reflections on Philosophy, Race, Sex, Culture
and Religion that Kweli's version of the song "is a study
in the narrative reconstruction of the fragmented elements of Black
survival and a cautionary tale against the racial amnesia that destroys
the fabric of Black collective memory." Dyson adds that "By
baptizing Simone's sentiments in a hip-hop rhetorical form, Kweli
raises new questions about the relation between history and contemporary
social practice, and fuses the generational ambitions of two gifted
The fact that a figure like Talib Kweli would be inclined to recover
Simone's art was lost in much of the mainstream commentary about
her death. In his obituary about Simone, Peter Keepnews, suggest
that "In the 1970s her music fell out of fashion in the United
States." (New York Times, 22 April 2003) But his comments
disregard the whole generation of Black youth who were introduced
to Simone via her classic "Young Gifted and Black" (1969).
For many folks in the post-soul and hip-hop generation, their introduction
to Simone music and songwriting came via hearing "Young, Gifted
and Black", which became a mantra for the first generations
to come of age after the Civil Rights era. As post-soul standard
bearer Meshell Ndegeocello asserted in the Los Angeles Times,
"Nina Simone was a messenger to our heart and conscience…
No telling how many lives she touched with the simple affirmation
of the beauty of being 'Young, Gifted and Black'."
The song, co-written with her musical director the late Weldon
Irvine (a mentor to hip-hop artists like Talib Kweli and Mos Def),
was meant as a tribute to her late friend Lorraine Hansberry who
died of cancer in the mid-1960s. But the simple message of the song
was so powerful, that is was immediately given tribute via the musical
visions of Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. Franklin's version
anchors her 1972 recording Young, Gifted and Black, her most
explicit political recording and Donny Hathaway's live version of
the song, which appears on the posthumously released In Performance
ranks among his best performances. (He also recorded a studio version
on his debut Everything is Everything, 1969).
Ndegeocello's observations about Simone finds resonance in the
music of some hip-hop generation artists. Besides his "deconstruction"
of "Four Woman," Talib Kweli's "Get By" (from
his current Quality) Simone's sampled voice (from her rendition
of "Sinnerman", which at once references the West-African
subtext of much of Simone's music and notions of Afro-religiosity
("Get By" is definitely on the "way out of no way"
spiritual tip). In another example, Lauryn Hill consciously invoked
Nina Simone's name on The Fugee's "Ready or Not" (The
Score, 1996) in an effort to distinguish her womanist musings
from the gangsterization of mainstream hip-hop In yet another example
the famed reconstitutionists, MAW (Masters at Work's "Little"
Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez), re-mixed Simone's
"See-Line Woman" last year (for the Verve//Remixed
project, giving Simone a club hit in the process.
The interests in Simone's music by a generation of artists, largely
born after her recording of "Mississippi Goddam" is just
further evidence of the potency of her spirit. The title of Simone's
autobiography, I Put a Spell on You paid tribute to her rendition
of the Screaming Jay Hawkins composition. In Hawkin's hand the song
was an uncomfortable (at least to Whites) acknowledgement of the
"dark" powers of Black masculinity in a society where
young White women, had been largely denied access to that masculinity.
But in the hands of Simone, the song was transformed into a moment
of high catharsis. Nina Simone put her own spell on us, one that
serves those from the Delta to Dakar, and beyond, well into the
— June 4, 2003
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