by Michael Slate
Revolutionary Worker #1202, June 8, 2003, posted at rwor.org
A little more than a month ago I heard Mississippi Goddam playing on the radio. I loved that song and I was really glad to hear it. Then within a half hour I heard My Baby Just Cares for Me and See Line Woman --that was more Nina Simone in one half hour than I'd heard on the radio for years. My heart sank. It could only mean one thing. Nina was gone.
Nina Simone died on April 21 at her home in the South of France. Her ashes have been spread across a handful of African countries, and the world is sad for her loss but a much richer place for having her among us.
I remember the first time I ever heard Nina Simone. I was 17 and living in a segregated neighborhood between Philadelphia and Chester. I lived in an Irish neighborhood bordered by an Italian neighborhood, a Puerto Rican neighborhood, and a Black neighborhood. We were all working class and the hoods were miles and miles of tiny red-brick row-homes arranged in a maze of circles. We didn't mix, except to fight. In the early 1960s my neighborhood made national news when a racist mob formed up to terrorize a Black family who had moved in. By 1968, I had learned some things and I had friends from the Black and Puerto Rican hoods. On the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated I was parked with my girlfriend outside of her house. I had the car radio tuned in to WDAS, at that time a major Soul station in the city. It was sometime after midnight when the DJ popped on I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free . Everything stopped for me. My girlfriend hit another button on the radio. I looked at her hard and then reached over and brought back WDAS and Nina Simone. She stared at me and sneered, "Please don't tell me you're a n*gger lover." That was the last time I ever saw Beth. But it was the beginning of a long relationship with the music of Nina Simone.
"I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
all the chains holding me
I wish I could say
all the things that I should say
Say 'em loud, say 'em clear
For the whole round world to hear
I wish I could share
all the love that's in my heart
Remove all the bars
that keep us apart
I wish you could know
what it means to be me
Then you'd see and agree
That every man should be free."
Fifteen years later, a couple of friends were getting married in Baltimore. They both came from Black working class families and were revolutionary communists. Late one night, a couple of weeks before their wedding, they came by my house to borrow Nina's Silk & Soul album because they wanted I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free to be their wedding song. The ceremony was beautiful, the song was perfect--it raised things to a whole other level. It took me years to get the album back. Whenever I saw the brother, he would always half-jokingly explain that his wife felt a special tie to that album--and it was stronger than my tie. I did finally get it back. When I played it I found that it had been played over and over so often that the grooves had almost disappeared, especially the song I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. I replaced the album but I've held on to that original copy. Those worn grooves are a beautiful testimony to the bond between Nina and the masses of Black people.
FROM BACH TO NINA
Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon on Februarry 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina. As Nina tells it, she was born into music and the big question for her was what was she going to do with it. Nina trained in classical music. Bach was her favorite musician; and she modeled herself after singer Marian Anderson. She wanted to be the first Black concert pianist, and towards that end she attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York for a year until her scholarship expired. She later applied for admission to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but was rejected because she was Black and poor.
It was during a summer job playing at a seedy bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that Eunice Waymon became a singer/ pianist instead of a classical pianist and changed her name to Nina Simone. By the time she was 25, Nina had signed her first record contract and had her one and only Top Twenty hit with her cover of I Loves You Porgy from the musical Porgy and Bess.Although Nina had a smash hit single, she was still forced to take a job as a maid for a white family in New York City in order to make ends meet.
All this changed when Nina performed her first major concert on September 12, 1959 at Town Hall in Manhattan. Suddenly everyone was talking about her. Right from the start critics and the music industry tried to box her into a package that would sell. And from the beginning it was clear that Nina Simone demanded respect for herself, her art, and her people. They called her a jazz vocalist or tried to sell her by comparing her to the Blues singer Billie Holiday. Nina rebelled and said that she played Black Classical Music.
She brought together all of the music in the Black experience and applied classical arrangements and motifs to it. Hers was a complex and deep artistry. She constantly experimented with timing and rhythms. She used silence as a musical element. And when it was done she had created something completely different, whether she was singing a cover or performing her own songs. Nina hated the attempts to put her in a box and argued that comparing her to Billie Holiday was a product of racist America's inability--its refusal--to deal with Black culture in all of its forms and complexities. She left the critics so flustered they had to resort to calling her a "jazz ...plus something else" performer.
THE SOUND OF BEING BLACK IN AMERICA
For the first few years of her career Nina did not see herself as a politically conscious artist. She mostly sang love songs--but what she brought to the songs deeply reflected the experience of Black people--and she loved doing it. Nina experienced racism and national oppression all through her life but she saw it as an individual problem that had to be handled individually. That began to change when Black people began to intensify the struggle against their oppression in the South.
Nina started to make the connections between the things she had faced and fought against in her life and what was happening to Black people in general. Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry was a very close friend of Nina's and took it on herself to hip Nina to a radical point of view. As Nina tells it, she and Lorraine would spend hours alone talking "real girl talk" of Marx, Lenin and revolution. Hansberry struggled to help Nina see that the civil rights struggle was part of a broader struggle against national and class oppression and to connect up her own experiences as part of that struggle. Nina also sought out discussions with everyone from Langston Hughes to Stokeley Carmichael (Kwame Toure) and the Black Panther Party in later years.
By the early 1960s Nina was speaking out in support of the struggle of Black people and against police brutality and other forms of racist attacks. But as she explains in her autobiography, I Put A Spell On You,she still was not really able to create art about or inspired by these struggles. Nina was very critical of what she called "protest songs." She described this music as "so simple and unimaginative that it stripped the dignity from the people it was trying to celebrate." As her political consciousness developed she struggled with how to do justice to the depth and character of what was happening to Black people in her music.
In June 1963, Nina was deeply impacted by the murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. Then on September 15, 1963 racist thugs bombed a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls attending a bible study class. When the people rebelled, the Birmingham police shot another Black youth and later a white racist mob beat a Black man to death in the street. "It was more than I could take," Nina recalled, "and I sat struck dumb in my den like St. Paul on the road to Damascus: all the truths that I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped my face. The bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers were like the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that made no sense until you had fitted the whole thing together. I suddenly realized what it was to be Black in America in 1963, but it wasn't an intellectual connection of the type Lorraine had been repeating to me over and over--it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination. In church language, the Truth entered into me and I `came through.' "
In her rage, Nina attempted to build a zip-gun (a homemade gun popular in poor neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s). She wanted to kill somebody, as she put it, at that moment, "The idea of fighting for the rights of my people, killing for them if it came to that, didn't disturb me too much." But she abandoned the zip-gun project and sat down at her piano. "An hour later I came out of my apartment with the sheet music for Mississippi Goddam in my hand. It was my first civil rights song and it erupted out of me quicker than I could write it down."
This song--that Nina described as a show tune for a show that hasn't been written yet--began with " The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam /and I mean every word of it." It ended hotter than it started: "Oh but this whole country is full of lies/ you're all gonna die and die like flies/ I don't trust you any more/ You keep on saying `Go Slow!'/ `Go Slow!'/ But that's just the trouble/ too slow/ Desegregation/ too slow/ Mass participation/ too slow/ Unification/ too slow/ Do things gradually/ too slow/ Brings more tragedy/ too slow/ why don't you see it/ why don't you feel it/ I don't know/ I don't know/ You don't have to live next to me/ Just give me my equality/ Everybody knows about Mississippi/ Everybody knows about Alabama/ Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam/ That's it!" Some radio stations refused to play it, saying that it was profane. One deejay in South Carolina took the crate of promo records he received, broke them in half and returned them to Nina's label. But the song spread all over the world.
This moment in history changed everything for Nina Simone. Her entire life took off in a direction no one would ever have predicted. In an interview with the musician Arthur Taylor as part of his book Notes and Tones,Nina explained that her ability to step out like this was very much tied up with what the masses of Black people were doing at the time. People struggling and rebelling in the streets gave her the strength, courage and inspiration to create revolutionary art for the people, art that would inspire the people in the struggle. Now her work was, as she put it, "dedicated to the fight for freedom and the historical destiny of my people." And all this meant that she could finally answer her mother's unasked question about why she "sang out in the world instead of praising god."
Nina took off in this new direction with an amazing determination and speed. She talked about living and breathing revolution for the next seven years. She started creating songs like wildfire. She joined with Langston Hughes to pen the lyrics for Backlash Blues. In honor of her close friend Lorraine Hansberry, who had died of cancer, Nina took the title of a play Hansberry had been working on before she died and co-wrote To Be Young, Gifted and Black with Weldon Irvine Jr. This song was later declared the Black National Anthem and, as Nina proudly pointed out, was even translated into Chinese and performed in China. Her song Turning Point is an especially powerful look at the impact of racism on children.
As Nina got more deeply involved in the movement she sought out all kinds of ways to explore the issues and develop her political consciousness. She got deep into trying to figure out the strategy needed to really liberate Black people. And while she was supportive of Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement he led, Nina found she had a lot more in common with the radical sections of the movement--Malcolm X, Stokeley Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party. She especially liked the Panthers because she felt that they were an inspiration to Black youth who previously only knew pacifist models of resistance. For Nina, "The Black Panthers made these kids realize that there are Black heroes who will fight and die if necessary to get what they want. That's what I find wonderful; they scare the hell out of white folks, too, and we certainly need that."
As the movement developed in more revolutionary directions, so too did Nina's political thinking. She was filled with revolutionary impatience. She began to speak out against the war in Vietnam. In 1971 Nina hooked up with Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda to perform on the "FTA" ("Fuck the Army") anti-war tour--a revue that combined music, comedy, drama and protest. Nina traveled the world to sing her songs about the struggle and oppression of Black people in America.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated she debuted a song at the Westbury Music Fair entitled Why?(The King of Love is Dead)and in the middle of the concert declared "I ain't about to be nonviolent, honey!" Nina began to believe that it was impossible for America to reform injustice. She believed it was deep in the fabric of society and that it would require completely changing that society from top to bottom. Her work really began to reflect this. The cover of Kurt Weill and Bertoldt Brecht's Pirate Jenny that she did still stands out as one of the most powerful and revolutionary versions of that song I've ever heard. In that same period she recorded the songs Revolution (part 1) and Revolution (part 2). The final verse of Revolution (part 1)is: "Singing about a revolution/ because we're talking about a change/ it's more than just evolution/ well you know you got to clean your brain/ the only way that we can stand in fact/ is when you get your foot off our back."
Although Nina's work principally concentrated on the overall revolutionary struggle of Black people, she also occasionally tried to speak to and about contradictions among the people. Her searing piece Four Women,illuminating the bitter experience of four Black women (black, tan, yellow and brown) was ahead of its time in frankly dealing with the contradictions between Black men and women--and it created a furor.
And Nina Simone also penned and/or sang some of the most beautiful songs about what a liberated future might be. Her covers of George Harrison's Here Comes the Sun and Stan Vincent's Ooh Child are full-fledged celebrations of the future to come--you just feel like your chest is puffed out and you're walking proud into a whole new world. And her own New World Coming follows the tradition of the old spirituals that were often used by slaves to plan escapes and inspire people to fight for the future. "There's a new world coming/ And it's just around the bend/ There's a brand new morning/ that belongs to you and me/ A new world coming/ The one we had vision of/ And it's coming in peace/ It's coming in joy/ And coming in love...yeah...yeah...yeah.
CITIZEN OF THE WORLD
As Nina Simone once put it, she came to think of herself as a citizen of the world. She made her first trip to Africa in late 1961 with a group of Black American artists and intellectuals including James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. This trip had a powerful impact on Nina--just the experience of returning to a part of the world that has such deep emotional and historical meaning for Black people in America.
By the mid-1970s the struggle in America had begun to ebb. Many of the revolutionary and other political groups Nina had worked with were either no longer functioning or had seriously lowered their sights and lost their revolutionary vision. Nina once described it as moving from "what we want" to "what can we get." But the conditions of Black people had not fundamentally changed and she felt betrayed by both America and the people she had to looked to as leaders and who she now saw taking refuge in community service and academic programs. She decided that if the U.S. was not going to change there was no way in hell she was going to continue living there. She began to wander the world--going from Barbados to Europe and then to Africa--especially Liberia--for an extended period of time. Eventually Nina left Liberia and headed back to Europe, finally settling in the south of France. She was seeking an extended period of rest and in that time she did very little in terms of her art.
By the mid-1980s she was starting to tour the world again and finally returned to the U.S. for a tour in 1985. She was immediately arrested on tax evasion charges when she landed in New York. Over the next 18 years Nina Simone periodically returned to the U.S. to perform but never returned here to live. "America had betrayed me, betrayed my people and stamped on our hopes," she told interviewers. "No way am I ever going to go back there and live. You get racism crossing the street, it's in the very fabric of American society."
Over the course of her career Nina Simone officially released at least 48 albums and when all the bootlegs around the world are thrown in, some sources raise the estimate to at least 100 albums out there. At the end of her autobiography Nina stepped back to sum up her life. She found she had no regrets. She relished, "years of joy--hard but joyous all the same--fighting for the rights of my brothers and sisters everywhere; America, Africa, all over the world, years where pleasure and pain were mixed together. I knew then, and I still do, that the happiness I felt, and still feel, as we moved forward together was of a kind that very few people ever experience."
When an interviewer once asked Nina how she wanted to be remembered, she replied, "I want to be remembered as a diva from beginning to end who never compromised in what she felt about racism and how the world should be, and who to the end of her days consistently stayed the same." And we are all forever grateful for that and all the art--and heart--that came out of it.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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