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Nina Simon

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 skin colors.

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 me.

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 her.

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 life?"

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.

Happy Birthday.

—By Harry Amana

Talk 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, "Four Women"

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 feel."

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 artists."

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 future.

— June 4, 2003

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