When I heard that Nina Simone would be featured on American Masters: How It Feels To Be Free, executive produced by Alicia Keys, I figured that it’s time for me to create my first Medium post. I wrote this piece after Nina’s memorial in 2003.
When the High Priestess of Soul walked on stage, it was to an ovation of clapping, whistling fans in love with her songs, her voice, her hands on the keys, and the ways she so perfectly embodied the message of the times. I sat between my mother and her lifelong friend, Shirley, mesmerized. I was ten.
August 18, 1969. The Schaeffer Music Festival in Central Park’s Wolman Skating Rink. She wore a lime-green gele wrapped high on her head and a brown body stocking under a floor-length skirt made of flowing, lime-green strips attached to a waistband. From afar, it seemed that she had nothing on beneath those panels of fabric. That portrait of Nina Simone hung in my memory for years, and I wished that I could, someday, see an image that captured her during that performance. And forty years after the fact, as I turned the pages of Princess Noire, I found it. I showed the photograph to my sons, smug, like I had really done something grand by being in the audience that evening. I said to them, “See this? I was there! I was right there that night!”
Oddly, I kept no musical memory in my ear of that night’s performance, but I must have heard “Mississippi Goddamn,” and “Four Women,” too. But, mid-song, Nina got up from the piano to curse her band out, and, of course, they kept right on playing. Her stride across the stage became rhythmic steps, became West Africa dancing through her legs extending, kicking through those lime-green strips. She contracted her bottom, moved her hips forward/back and side to side with grace, but her voice, as she reprimanded the cats, was mean enough to scare the devil. But the band looked at her blasé blah, as though that kind of cursin’ out happened all the time. And it did.
From what I eventually learned about Nina, her reputation for being venomous, frustrated, brilliant, crazy, and outspoken was well deserved. She was also revered for her politics that held steady at revolutionary: In many instances her beliefs were inseparable from her art. By this time, the Freedom Now Movement’s name had been changed to the Civil Rights Movement. By this time, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated standing on a motel balcony, after leading a march for the rights of sanitation workers. By this time, nineteen-year-old Fred Hampton had been assassinated while sleeping in his bed next to his pregnant wife. A few months after Nina sang in Central Park, Professor Angela Davis was placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.
In 1969, I had recently come into my singing self, but just a bit. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” was the kind of song I already instinctively knew, even though I had never heard it before. Plaintive, earnest, simple. It sounded like music from those eras before me, transmitted down through the blood and translated, so Billy Taylor could channel it, and, in 1967, Nina could record it.
Mrs. Garner, a parent volunteer, taught it to me for a school talent show. I didn’t know then that Nina sang it. But that song became part of my morals and helped drive me to try to make up for all the time my ancestors lost, all of the time they never had to fulfill their desires: “I wish I could do all the things I could do…Though I’m way overdue, I’ll be starting anew.” Those lyrics sat in the wide, open space of my childhood where it was possible to fit all things imaginable, where there could be infinite, happy endings. Such as the freedom of soaring to the sun. Such as that wide, open space where wishes, imagination, and belief are everything. Where all you have to do is open your arms really, really, really wide and this act alone would transform the world, placing everything that you ever needed or wanted within your reach, your embrace.
Hearing Nina sing Billy Taylor, then me singing Billy Taylor–word and melody– were part of what moved me to worship at the altar of our collective souls: I believed that my aspirations should echo the notes that I heard in the ever-moving-forward, liberating music of my people. Since I came from a family of race people, I was primed for keeping my mind “stayed on freedom,” but, now, the impetus for freedom that so many people shared is just about gone. In this hour, it is atrophy’s weight that is the burden that must be cast off if we want inequality to end. It is a fearsome thing for me to admit that I’m uncertain that liberation will ever come, because so few understand the prison they are in. And, not just African American people, either, but everyone. My friend Mae Jackson says, “Freedom is being responsible for the welfare of your community and what goes on within it.” Mae was in SNCC, so she knows the truth of such things.
I ask you, how many people control the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, and what their children are taught about how to negotiate their futures? There is only one air, one water, but there are clearly two conceptions of education: one is based on freedom; the other on psychological slavery, i.e., permanent entombment in thinking like one’s master.
Back in the day, when Nina sang and played, her soul-deep tones resurrected our courage. Built up our pride. Made us transcend for a moment that constant pain living in the hollow of our bones and coursing through our blood. She was one of those Black people who gave us back to our selves. Our individual selves. Our collective self. Because heaven knows we needed to regain some concept of who we were, despite all that we had suffered: assailing ourselves and letting other people assail us, too.
Nina as womanist-artist-activist helped me understand that I must resist entombment every day and in every way I knew how. Nina was who she wanted to be. How she wanted to be. Why she wanted to be. That’s why I had to go to her memorial.
On July 24, 2003, I sat in the balcony of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church looking at the tops of peoples’ heads, seated below me in the first rows of the sanctuary. Those folk, too, came to simultaneously rejoice over Nina’s life and to mourn her passing. Some were famous. Most were not.
A black, straw hat with a large brim that swooped up at the front, as broad as the wearer’s shoulders, caught my attention. It was next to another hat, a small tan one–a fashionable, linen version of a fisherman’s cap. Every now and then the hats would move closer together as the women wearing them would speak/listen to each other. These were the hats of Cicely Tyson and Ruby Dee. Two women who are the thespian personifications of the same transcendent spirit that spoke through Nina. Through their art, I lived many lessons. I lived through some of the characters that Cicely or Ruby played. In the songs that Nina sang, I heard things I already knew and things that I would come to learn as a woman. The high and low tones, the trills, the vibrato, the snatching in of air and releasing it as a plaintive, pretty, or defiant sound, her voice a shout. Nina’s music was just that concise and she lined out parts of who I am.
Over the church speakers, her recordings. After “Plain Gold Ring,” a crisp patter of hands. After “Four Women,” hands slapping together sounding like a rainstorm on a tin roof. And whistling. After “Pirate Jenny” the patter and the rainstorm changed to a collective “YEAAAAAAA.” Then “Mississippi Goddamn,” and slapping hands and stomping feet and shouting voices resounded like thunder. Then the congregants settled in and down. We grew still, quiet.
We began to contemplate our losses: we grieved for the fearless ones. For the loss of the idyllic equality hoped for, when the bravest of souls went to fight wherever they had to: Anniston, Jackson, and Birmingham. Like most serious singers, Nina chose songs that she could access at the moment of their presentation, and once she had processed the emotions or outgrown them, she moved on.
Most of the mourners were women. Sitting in the pews, I saw the embodiments of Nina’s four women — Aunt Sarah with those long arms and wooly hair. Then that high-yellow girl, Saphronia, cut from the cloth of every woman who had ever been forced one night. And the delicious-looking Sweet Thing doing what she wants to do, sitting in the church looking like sex for sale. And Peaches, sitting up in her pew totally unrepentant, looking like she might cut somebody, and dare you or Jesus to do anything about it. Through that one song, the myriad daughters of Africa’s America were reaffirmed, bound by their herstory, reunited by their kindred lineage of bondage and surviving its aftermath, united eternally by their similarities and their differences. United by being profoundly misunderstood.
The high priestess affirmed each of us in the space of her precious lyrics — Black women are special those words say. Our looks make us think differently, love differently, we be different.
Nina sang of the lives that Black women understood. How many women had ignored that plain, gold ring, falling for another woman’s husband, bedding him, coveting him, loving him, and been left? When Nina sang Mississippi Goddamn, many, many more than those three men working for voting rights flowed from those notes.
The Reverend Dr. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian, bopped his slew-footed bop down the aisle in a white vestment to the beat of “See-Line Woman.” Stood in his pulpit, said, “That was my favorite one.” Nina sang: “See-Line woman dressed in red make a man lose his head. See-Line woman black dress on, for a thousand dollars she wail and moan. . .” How many preachers do you know who’ll say that a song about a prostitute is his favorite? And the superlatives Butts used to speak of Nina’s artistry could also have been used to describe many of the celebrities who gathered to memorialize our Nina.
Valerie Simpson sat on the end of a pew, shadeless at first, then as tears began rolling down her cheeks, she put her glasses on, held her head down, bereft. Little Alicia Keys, five-time Grammy-award winner, sat all alone. She came to pay homage to Nina, the woman who had never been given one Grammy. Alicia sat across the aisle from Valerie, who, along with her husband, Nick, had been nominated but never chosen.
In the pulpit, the daughter of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, Atallah, said she was accustomed to losing people that had reputations of being crazy or difficult. Instead of her mother or father, she lost her godmother this time. Nothing out of the realm of her experience. Between her laughter and tears, Atallah reminisced — her deep, rich voice breaking at times. She recalled telling Nina that when a singer’s stance showed her to be a truth-telling, conjure-woman warrior, a new verb had been coined. Here’s how we would use it in a sentence. “So and so was so powerful, she Nina-Simoned it!” Atallah said that her godmother merely said, “Oh, really?” Atallah’s life had not hardened her from shedding tears. Her losses in one lifetime may dispose her to breaking down, crying for days, maybe weeks, maybe years and here she was, yet again, standing in the midst of our community of grief.
Then more remembrances. Verta Mae Grosvenor, one of Nina’s friends, has a reputation for being vicious in the kitchen, and for being a great storyteller. Verta said she was in her Houston Street apartment cooking fried chicken, rice, and collard greens, while wearing a lace duster that she had bought that day from a thrift shop. Nina, she said, stopped by on her way to the airport to get a plate to take on Air France in first-class, and she needed some hot sauce, too, as well as the lace duster because one of the songs she was going to sing needed it–the lace duster. I wondered if it was “Plain Gold Ring.” Verta said she wrapped up the food and Nina carried it to her limo, got right in, and whisked Verta’s vibration cooking right off to Kennedy Airport.
In Abyssinian that day, all at once, tranquil spirits moved through the sanctuary. I felt them. There are so many souls present in our single souls. Legions, long dead, invisible, for the most part, show up for these memorials, because we carry them with us. Though I did not see them, I imagined that they all sat together in their finest clothes on a magnificent magic carpet or on a broad, yellow, flowing ribbon. Preferred means of transport on such special occasions. I felt the Ancestors that day. They were there heavy with the burdens that Black people bear.
Reverend Butts’s cadences, soulful like Nina’s music, praised her entrance into the ancestral realm. And Ossie Davis, a voice of the Movement himself, called Nina the Trumpet of the Movement, which is a far greater honor than being a Grammy winner, because with Nina, politics always trumped popularity.
Maybe Cicely Tyson felt the yellow ribbon move past her, as she recited Langston Hughes’ ancient, sustaining memories, in “I’ve Known Rivers,” adding her own river motifs and metaphors echoing Nina’s life, the lives of Black women and Black people.
And Black folks are all up in Nina’s music and we are not always as tranquil as the rivers that Cicely conjured. Nina said what needed to be said with complete, artistic authority: In her musicality, in her singular attack, in how she used the time she was given to transform, mesmerize, and influence generations of thinkers, activists, artists, politicians, and singers who long to have just a taste of what she had. She was loud, quiet, hip, beautiful, imbued with power. Nina’s piano and voice spoke against the world’s chaos — the messes that arise when things are not right and, to paraphrase the King of Love, when injustice is rolling down the mountain like a mighty stream, and if King’s words were one side of the Movement’s mouth, Nina’s words were the other. “Don’t tell me, I’ll tell you. Me and my people are just about due!” is not “We shall overcome, someday-ay-ay-ay-ay.” Nina was ferocious and could incite. After the concert in Central Park, as my mother, Shirley, and I walked to the car, they exchanged comments.
“She was outta site,” Ma said.
“She’s too much,” Shirley answered.
And we drove down Fifth Avenue to the 59th Street Bridge in Shirley’s red Valiant, with Nina propelling the car. Seemed like Shirley was driving 80 miles an hour. She ran the red lights, and hollered out of the windows to pedestrians who dared to place their bodies in front of her car, “Get out of the way, you honkies!” Shirley was feeling Nina’s mojo tap into her own. Nina could put somebody into immediate touch with what they felt about their condition — whether about love or politics. That’s what Nina could do.
At the memorial, Samuel Eugene Waymon, Nina’s brother, accompanied himself on a medley of her songs. Going from gut-bucket to Bach, from jazz to fugue, playing the piano like his sister and singing through the memories of their years together. I felt the memories get caught up in his chest, saw them stream down his face.
When Abbey Lincoln walked in with her beautiful self, I realized that these artists who selflessly supported causes like freedom and peace and equality will soon be gone, and there are few to replace them. I want them to live forever or long enough to see that their work has borne fruit, so, they can change their songs, their scenes, and live happily ever after.
Before now, before this current, horrendous era, even if Black artists weren’t marching, carrying signs, singing protest songs, or writing socially conscious plays, Black artists had a very, very, very deep thing about making sure Black people looked good. Intelligence, eloquence, style, class, outsized, beguiling presence, talent — and we loved them for it: Lena Horne, Ruby Dee, Nancy Wilson, Diahann Carroll, Diana Ross and the Supremes. There is no such depth today with the young singer women. They sing Nina’s music and are awed by it. I know they are awed by it. I am awed by it. Any singer in the world is awed by what Nina sang. But do the young singer women understand what Nina was?
Nina Simone is the epitome of the connected artist — connected to the struggles of her people and other peoples internationally. Nina Simone is the kind of artist that knew the issues and the histories, and used her musical platform to elevate the truth. Of course Nina got paid for her work — as did Abbey and Ruby — but they all kept their distance from the moneychangers’ ways. As I watch the young singer women artists who perform some of Nina’s tunes, I find myself shaking my head, wondering aloud, how much money do you need? I know they don’t want to lose the platform they were given, so even before they have a chance to sell out they sell in and buy in.
I saw Alicia Keys at Nina’s memorial. Of course, Alicia is grown and can do whatever she wants to do with her art, but, despite Alice Walker’s open letter asking her not to go to Israel, because, “Israel’s [apartheid] against the Palestinian people” is more lethal than American apartheid in the South before and during the Civil Rights Movement, Alicia chose to go to share her gifts as a “universal” artist. Alicia is a humanitarian. Her foundation does seemingly wonderful work in helping children with AIDS in Africa, but I am compelled, again, to quote Mae who says, “Being a humanitarian means that you never have to take a position.”
Ruby, Abbey, and Nina took very strong positions and held onto them until their dying days. I am sure as their hours on the planet waned, they were greatly satisfied with what they had done, and maybe a little tired, too, from working all those years for a revolution that never came. A few years ago, at an event for Mumia Abu-Jamal at Mother Zion AME Church, my job was to sit in the lobby to check people in at the door, and in walked Ossie and Ruby, arm in arm. In three dimensions, she was even more gorgeous. I showed them to their seats, as one speaker after the other established Mumia’s innocence. Ruby and Ossie were grounded by the concept of community: if one of us is in trouble then we all are.
Dana Owens, the beautiful and talented Queen Latifah, is a quadruple theat. She rhymes, she sings (her booty off), acts (her face off), and hosts a talk show. Her version of “I Put a Spell on You” is Nina’s version. She lends her support to charitable causes and could be called a humanitarian. What positions would she consider taking? How much money will she need? (Since the writing of this essay in 2003, Queen has built affordable housing in Newark, New Jersey.)
Yes, I understand that there is no Movement. There is no more SNCC, no more Black Panther Party, no more SDS, no more Gray Panthers, no more Young Lords, no more Ella Baker, no more Fannie Lou Hamer, no more MLK, and no more Malcolm. Activism was decimated by state violence, poverty programs, and representative Black faces in high places. The history of what really happened is terrifying. Who wants to wind up framed in prison for decades, or hiding in Cuba, or dead broke alive, because instead of working for a large salary, you worked for your people? But when one takes a position that is strongly held, fear recedes, and in its place is something so strong that we can “Nina-Simone” it. As the beautiful Dana and Alicia assess their last hours on earth, I hope that they can die as Ruby, Nina, and Abbey did, shunning the moneychangers to help us on this road to equality.
When Abbey walked into Abyssinian, she sat in a dim corner, unnoticed by most of the mourners that day. And, as quickly as she came, she left. These two–Lincoln and Simone–like Billy Taylor’s song became part of who I am. They were mothers I had not known personally, but mothers nonetheless. The spirits riding aloft on the yellow ribbon swirled past me. I worried about our future. When I was ten, Nina Simone was famous and loved. I learned some of her songs. She was haughty, and by her own admission liked to talk about girly things like Marxism with her friend Lorraine Hansberry.
In her elegy, Patti Labelle recalled rubbing Nina’s naked body that was ravaged by the cancer that killed her. It was from this space that Patti began her a capella “The Lord’s Prayer.” “Our Father who art in Heaven…give us this day, our daily bread…” Then another miracle woman stepped onto the ancestral carpet, allowing it to carry her: Valerie Simpson jumped out of her pew, ran down the aisle, sat at the piano, her head tilted downwards listening, her fingers beautifully arched over the keys. When Patti said, “…and forgive us,” Valerie laid down that complex chord, in the right key, the right time, at the right tempo. Patti stood on tiptoe, looked over the podium, said, “Oh, Valerie, that’s you,” and kept right on singing. Valerie is the queen of the unsung geniuses. Together, two of the baddest women in music ever bade their sister farewell.
For me, this was one of those days where the beauty and depth of Black womanhood was overwhelming. For me, this was one of those days where the fact that Black women have led mythic lives for real was seen with a lucidity that makes the head swell and your heart feel extraordinarily good, if you are a Black woman. And, if you’re not, it may lead you to wonder what it feels like to be in such magnificent skin or in such awesome company.
Mythic: Creating our own standard of beauty; using the voice, the music as a way to inspire consciousness and transcendence; holding our families together — making “a way out of no way” — so that the race could keep moving forward; living through stultifying oppression and withstanding the lies about our alleged licentiousness, lies about who we are. And yet still being able to talk and walk and love. All of this. Mythic.
Next to me was a little girl of around five. The woman she was with was old enough to be her grandmother, but I could not tell whether she was or not. The little girl looked exactly like her, but light-skinned as opposed to the woman’s pecan brown. The little girl knew all the lyrics to all of the Nina songs they played. When Cicely Tyson got up and said, “I’ve known rivers,” the little girl recited it, too. Word for word.
Simone, Nina’s daughter came up. She thanked everyone for coming, explained that she held the memorial, so that her mother would be remembered. Simone sang. Her voice more like Patti’s than Nina’s. After a few notes, her eyes welled up, she said, “she’s here.”
If we could have seen Nina at that moment, she would have been seated at the front of that special carpet all by herself. Legs crossed at the ankles, looking down her nose at us, a smile in her eyes, knowing that we understood why she had come and what she had done; what she had suffered and what she had transcended.
After the memorial, I stepped out into the heavy Harlem air. Midafternoon, warm, humid. In the heat the sounds of the living move slowly through the air. Chattering, hollering, car engines, bus brakes. On Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard/Seventh Avenue a broke-down man selling greens and melons from a half broke-down truck. A white couple stood on the corner of 138th Street called Striver’s Row. The woman exclaimed into her cell phone that they found their dream house, a Stanford White, for only $875,000.
The drunken, alcoholic men sat on the sidewalk talking. They all acknowledged me respectfully. They had various things missing: teeth, socks, shoes, a belt, a shirt. Young men stood in front of the Arab bodega, with their pants hung low and large, talking to one another, but not saying anything. The exhilaration of praising Nina began to disintegrate. The moment had disappeared, until I remembered the little girl next to me, reciting Langston’s ancient, sustaining memory, “I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. . . .”
I am certain that Nina knew this poem. I have a feeling that she could recite it by heart. Maybe, along with some choice curse words and deeply felt, desperate prayers, she used her friend’s verse as a buoy when things became unbearable. How else could her voice have resounded so loudly, for so long telling old Pharaoh to let our people go, so we could soar to the sun to sing new songs about finally, finally, finally being free?
I am part of a long line of artists that will ride the road, all the way to the yellow ribbon, and ride the magic carpet to our freedom. I am not famous and I am frequently broke, but I have a little Nina in my soul, and I was alive when the assassinations rained down. I saw them and I felt them. Witnessing these things can change one’s perspective. I know that I am part of a long line of Black women, who believe that our little, every day actions can alter things on a world scale. I know that what we write and sing can push progress along. It’s going to take just a little bit longer than we imagined, but by the time I take my place on that yellow ribbon, maybe those who memorialize me will say, she “Nina-Simoned” it!
© 2003, Karen D. Taylor, all rights reserved