When I first was introduced to the music of Dr. Nina Simone…I remember it was the early ’90s. I was in the music store Tidal Wave in Saint Paul with my mama. She was doing her usual weekly perusing for new music. There I was, 10-year-old me, walking around on exploration mode as Tidal Wave had “listening stations,” so I could get in my free listening sessions. Everything on the wall of music was alphabetical. I had hit the “M-N-O” section that particular day.
I remember seeing this picture of a striking, Brown-skinned woman with her hair done up in a way that reminded me of Josephine Baker (whom I practically worshipped at that age). The cover said, “Silk and Soul.” I was mad interested. Who is this Black woman? I thought. A Bach-inspired classical composer, writer, vocalist and holder of two Doctorate degrees. Who is Nina Simone? You mean to tell me there is actually an artist that is everything I aspired to be as a musician?!
Well…not the Bach thing per se.
I excitedly put the headphones up to my ears and hit play. “I Loves You, Porgy” began and, in all honesty my 10-year-old palate wasn’t ready for the acquired taste that is Nina. I didn’t like the song. At all. So, I moved on to the next artist without even checking the other tracks.
I didn’t know no better.
Five years later. 1999. Teenage me, sitting up at Penumbra Theatre getting ready to witness my first “Non English Speaking Spoken Here” show that influential artist Laurie Carlos had invited me to. The show starts and I hear sultry bass and drums. Unbeknownst to me, it was the song “Four Women.” I was so intrigued by the song itself that it stayed on my mind till I went to school that following Monday and looked it up online to find it and read the lyrics for myself. I was trippin’…and thought to myself that I should have listened to her other stuff before I deemed I didn’t like her style. I played the song over and over. The last passage of the song penetrated me the most:
“My skin is brown
My manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see
My life has been too rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
Because my parents were slaves
What do they call me?
My name is PEACHES!!!!!!”
I remember listening to the song and, thinking, “sh*t, I’m Peaches!!”
I felt as if she was singing that for me!!!
And, for my Mother.
And, her Mother.
And, her Mother.
And, so on.
I never identified with an artist’s music like that before.
Sure, I loved Chaka Khan’s music and voice but, Nina was deeper than deep. Rooted in the African diaspora, deep. Her music wasn’t for “entertainment.” Her music was for change…for liberation…for Black healing. And it changed the way I looked at songwriting and the messages that I should be conveying as a GLBT Black Woman Artist (a supposed, “triple minority”) in this world.
After discovering that song I began researching. I discovered “Mississippi Goddam,” and “Feeling Good.” I found her versions of “I Put A Spell On You,” and “Strange Fruit.” I found her version of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” (co-written with Weldon Irvine), as I only knew both the Donny and Aretha versions. And, I came across one of my most personal favorites by her, “Revolution.” These songs all touched on my own personal feelings in regard to Black life, almost like she knew me.
My respect for her artistry continued to grow because I couldn’t find any others quite like her. At that age, I had come to respect Black women activist/songwriters like Miriam Makeba, Odetta, or Mavis Staples (to name a few), who spoke out in their music. But Nina…Nina was different in the way she did it. Live and direct. Non-smiley-faced. She meant every letter of every word. I LOVE that!
I was hooked.
And, not necessarily hooked on her music but, hooked on Nina Simone herself.
I mean, here was a woman of color that was a fearless art maker standing firm in a White patriarchal dominated society, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Writing/performing/recording lines like,
“I know they’ll say I’m preaching hate
But if I have to swim the ocean
Well I would just to communicate
It’s not as simple as talkin’ jive
The daily struggle just to stay alive
Singing about a revolution
Because we’re talking about a change
It’s more than just evolution.”
Y’all let me say this: Nina Simone really, really wasn’t no punk.
I highly respect that she was unabashedly herself. She kept it real and wasn’t going to play the game that is trying to fit a mold of what people expected her to be as a Black person and as a woman. She wasn’t hearing that.
I’m absolutely here for those special kinds of women warriors.
She surrounded herself with other likeminded, progressive, brilliant Black artists such as Baldwin, Hansberry, Makeba…artists that used their artistic platform to vie for their people ‘cause that’s what’s important. She was absolutely about that Revolutionary Life. And, as much as she struggled throughout it…dealing with constant racism, dealing with unhappiness, dealing with the industry exploiting her music…she never compromised in the name of money or, success. That’s immense strength.
She was indeed,
“Strong enough to take the pain
Inflicted again and again.”
I think that is what attracts me to her the most. Simone had the courage to stand up on stage in the 1950s and ’60s and do what Black artists like Mayfield, Hathaway and, Gaye did in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: Call folks out on the carpet in a very political fashion through music. Telling truth in regard to what was happening in the Black Community—voicing the real, from the source. Her shows were pure fire. She had a way of captivating people via her musicianship while simultaneously teaching her audience.
Her songs were her sermons, her piano was her pulpit.
Simone’s performances contained elements ranging from African to Jazz to Gospel to Classical to Folk. She was so dramatic in the way she chose to sing a song (see: “Strange Fruit”). Watching her, you could totally see that she was in tune with the Spirit and, when that Spirit hit her, it was on!
I marvel at many things about this Woman…
How she spoke about her Blackness.
The seriousness of her talking her history, talking facts.
The love, the pride she had for said Blackness.
How she didn’t allow anyone to censor her feelings.
How convicted within her beliefs, she was.
How she was as committed to her art as much as, she was committed to her own people.
How at the end of her shows, she would be drained, and still find the energy to provide a safe space for Black youth to come and talk to her…fostering Black healing and Black love in her own way.
Dr. Nina Simone is beyond Dope.
She was a true artist, and a true activist. The last of a dying breed. She is a predecessor of mine that I hold near and dear to my heart.
“Oh but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say
To be young, gifted and black
Is where it’s at!”
Your words help lead the way. There are those in this world that still aim to maintain the Black Aesthetic, carrying that torch you (and countless others) upheld with dignity, integrity, and respect.