In all of popular, American music history, there is only one Nina Simone. There are many other distinctive voices but there is only one woman who is top ranking. Nina.
First, she is a musician’s musician. Whether blues, bop, or Bach–or for that matter anyone or any other genre or whatever else–Nina was a piano monster.
Second, she is the ultimate vocalist. People crow and shout hosannas for vocalists who they claim could sing the phone book. Well. Nina didn’t need no book. No words. She could moan and make you swoon. Could sing “Jack went up the hill” and make that bad boy come running back down for more.
Don’t believe me. There is recorded evidence. At one particular concert, I was there in the audience. Oblivious to everyone else. All I saw. All I heard. Was Nina.
Third, she was a presence. Lord, could she dance. Make them ballet people sit on their hands and take notes on how to move your body; really move your body. She would just jump up from the piano, saunter from side to side, swivel her hips (slowly, mind you, never in no hurry), stare at you, mesmerize you, make you wish you were a Damballa snake wrapping round her waist. That close. Snuggled up.
All Germans are not nazis. It’s not even a case of exceptionalism. You know, like in: ok, they are bad but there are some good Germans. No. What the real deal is: all of humanity contains positives and negatives with one or the other being dominant at different times under various conditions.
My first real inkling that Germany could be hip–not just ok, but actually hip–came when New Orleans visual artist Willie Birch turned me on to Max Beckmann. Decades later, post-Katrina, when I googled the German-born American I found a fascinating visual artist with work featuring Mexico and the mythic American west. His hallmark however was the work he did in the so-called roaring twenties. That was the man whose work I knew thru my deep love of Langston Hughes that began when I was in eighth grade. That was in the fifties.
Turns out, Beckmann was aware of Winhold Reiss, whose work I knew from my initial forays into Harlem Renaissance literature. And there it was again: the German connection. I recently read a short article by Tjark Reiss, Winhold’s daughter. She said:
One of his traits that impressed me, particularly as I grew up, was his total lack of racial prejudice. He enjoyed people, and he tried to experience humanity in all its diversity. This love and respect that he carried for the rich variations on the human theme is seen in his portraits. The many racial and national types that he painted express an underlying digni- ty and humanity. He saw not only what race his subjects were but also wanted to know their ethnic backgrounds and to have a sense for how it had affected them.
He was the first artist to devote much atten- tion to painting portraits of Blacks. He would go up to Harlem, and to the Cotton Club, and become completely immersed in Black culture. He loved the music that he heard there. He felt that Blacks — unlike whites — could wear almost any bright color and handle it well because of the strong contrast offered by their skin color.
The deeper I got into Reiss, the more I realized that he was a major contributor to the so-called Harlem Renaissance; I say “so-called” because for me, that period is really the Garvey era. Mainstream America chooses not to honor Marcus Garvey even though he was the founder of the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association, the largest mass movement of African Americans in the history of this country.
Winhold Reiss’ art work was featured on the cover of the 1925 edition of Survey Graphic. Although not by name but rather by his distinctive images, Reiss is known by subsequent generations of students of the Harlem Renaissance.
My next phase grew out of a life-long adherence to the man who became my literary mentor and highly valued friend: Tom Dent. Tom’s Beckmann influence was not direct. I don’t remember Tom mentioning the artist, nor us ever discussing Beckmann, but I always recall: Tom personally met Langston. My deepest connection was the last time I saw Tom alive. I visited him in the hospital the day before I departed for a trip to Germany. Tom died when I was in Munich.
Subsequently, well after I was teaching creative writing and video production to high school students, I encountered “Our Rhineland”, a short film written and directed by Guggenheim fellow Faren Humes about Afro-German sisters during the Nazi years. Back in the 20th century I wrote about that valued example of cinema, and a number of years later wrote about it again, and now am returning to it for a third time.
My fixation was/is not just with this film, nor with Germany in general, but rather with my philosophical grappling with the questions and conundrums of the human experience, especially we African-heritage persons facing our life in 20th and 21st western-dominated centuries.
For me, the phrase I refer to under a wide variety of circumstances and which I continually mull over is “nothing human is foreign to me’. That keeps me connected to the world, to all of humanity. The aphorism is actually from Terence, an enslaved African writer during Roman times. Terrence wrote “Homo sum: humani nihil a me alien puto.” (I am human. I consider nothing human alien to me.)
That’s my touchstone: in life, and eventually, in death–nothing human is foreign to me.
Sometimes we get so overwhelmed with day-to-day events. We pay no attention to the troubles of others.
Especially when the others are far away. Or speak a different language. So distant from ourselves. We seldom even see them on tv. On our computer screens. Infrequently on the internet channels we surf. Almost never on our favorite shows.
Here in the good-old USA, who talks about the young girls kidnapped in Nigeria?
Much of what we are, can never be expressed merely using words. We are deeper than language, unless that language rides a rhythm. The sundry rhythms of life. You know. I know. We all know. We all have a heart, have feelings.
Remember how you reacted, how you expressed your joy. How you heart flipped and skipped when someone was your heart and you theirs. And you wordlessly embraced. You know how the old folks say–how great it is when two becomes one.
Mayra is of the tribe of Black survival that comes in all colors. Whatever color humans come in, we have been that color. Mashed up into a dense Blackness that contains all. African creolo. West African. Way west. Litte islands jutting out into the water. Once you get thousands of miles away, where there is nothing to see but sea. The Atlantic Ocean.
Mayra is a woman of both shores. Born in Cuba. On one side. On the other, her people, her heritage is Cape Verdean. Thanks to her diplomat parentage she has had the opportunity to live all over the world. And now as a grown woman she embraces all that she has been. Check it:
She makes music with a piece of metal. She scrapes out beats.
She flips electronic switches. Modulates her voice. Awash in electronics.
All is her. And then she makes herself a home in Ghana–that’s in West Africa–she is not only comfortable in the midst of Covid, but sings with only a guitarist collaborating in her music making.
Who knows what the world future will bring. None of us do. But worldwide I know we all know music. Despite whatever troubles trouble us, we can harmonize in the midst of misfortune. This Covid-shit is merely a modern-day middle passage. We know we can survive this. We did it before.
Mayra Andrade is aware, fully woke. When she sings making beauty is what her sound is about. Us. Surviving. Always. Any means necessary. Pushing past bullshit. Struggling. And loving. Being our bad and beautiful selves. Yes.
Sometimes we don’t know how to get pass the fuckery that has been dropped on us. Sometimes we hurt each other in misguided attempts to achieve happiness. But then, it is precisely when we are locked down that our spirits rise up.
No misery lasts forever. Even if our future does not include all of us, is only composed of some us, we will survive, we will get pass this. We will be happy on the other side, even if it’s only for a moment. We will live. We will sing. We will love. Our history tells us so.
All us old schoolers have a story. At least one. When Monk’s music opened us. A 20th century moment that caused us to say–to ourselves, as well as out loud to everyone, anyone, within earshot–“Oh, I see. And I’ll never be blind again.”
Rocky Mount, North Carolina born, New York City reared, resident. An architect of bebop, indeed, arguably “the” architect. Thelonious Sphere Monk schooled generations of hipsters on the sacredness of being one’s self.
If you were hip, his deep music always pulled you in. If you were square or newly becoming rounded, his music would teach you. A real creator of minimalism. He could drop three notes, one crashing chord. Silence. Jump up and dance. That would be enough to turn you around, meet your true self, and start down your own road to personal nirvana–not a place of riches but rather a state of knowledge. The realization of what we are here for, what we are truly capable of being/becoming. All the things we are.
Monk was not an easy man to understand. You could get to his music but you had to be willing to face yourself. Your feelings, why you really thought the way you did. Where you came from. How your parents and your environment, your experiences and the choices you made shaped you. What you said when you were young, who you reached out to hold as you got older. The person, or people, who became your chosen life partners as you matured. Perhaps, instead of a couple of years, it took a couple of decades. Whatever.
When you got there, Monk would be there, inscrutable, silently asking you with a dip of his head: what took you so long?
You would look away quickly, not wanting him to see the self-fear clouding your eyes. And when you looked back, he was already gone. All you had left was his music, permanently situated in your head, your heart. Monk’s music.
He had two women he really loved. Nellie, his wife. And the Baroness, a European friend who became a major fellow traveler. Nellie was not a starlet, didn’t have Hollywood looks, but was a star, a constant in his constellation. And the Baroness, was not a lover in the carnal sense albeit unwavering in her allegiance.
When the squares finally caught up, it was Time to put Monk on the cover.
I remember in the sixties, I would lay on the family couch in the back room between the kitchen and our bedroom. My two younger brothers would be out somewhere doing whatever brothers do. Larry McKinley on the radio between 3pm and 7pm on Saturdays. I would hear Monk. Learned to love Monk. Dug Monk. Like I said all us old schoolers have a Monk memory. Indelible. Will last as long as we are alive.
My man be my patron saint. Even though I am not religious, have not been to church for years, for decades. More than half a century back.
Even that long ago, I had sense enough to comprehend that Langston Hughes was somebody I needed to know. To read. To study. To constantly return to. For information. Inspiration.
My little sister Chelsey–she who came down to us from upper midwest climes and is now my lead editor at the University of New Orleans (UNO) press. She and I had a long conversation while sitting on a campus green space at the school. We spoke of many things but chief among them was a man I consider the master blaster of 20th century letters. Letters, as in literature, both literally and figuratively.
I know there are many other important writers. For example, just on a poetry tip, at one point I deeply dug Carl Sandburg and used to devour e. e. cummings. But none of them stuck with me as long, as strong, as did Mr. Hughes.
Here are video excerpts. Chelsey and I ensconced on folding chairs holding forth on a little bit of this and a little bit of that, all revolving around Langston.
I certainly did–notice that you can sense me sometimes searching for the words to say how much I love and revere Langston Hughes.
Born in Detroit and a 1973 graduate of Howard University, she started professional life as a model but quickly switched. No longer the object before the camera, she became the agent behind the camera. The one who quietly pictured the intimate life of us.
Her portraits are startling in their intimacy, as though she is introducing us to a close friend she loves and whom she is equally sure we will also love.
She is noted for her distinctive studies of jazz–both the musicians and the music in general. Although much of her work is in black&white, she has also done amazing color and hand-colored photography.
Probably not intentionally so. She is not a tourist guide through the community of us quickly grabbing commercial images–much of what she does is one step short of embarrassing. Embarrassing for both the seen and those who are looking at images of what is seen.
Rather than a photography mainly of technique–after all, many of her photographs are subjects many of us could take IF we were as dedicated as she is to sensitively picturing the moments we are not just ordinary day to day objects, but rather, going deeper and getting to whenever we are extraordinary, whenever no one, or at least far too many of us, are not looking; those many moments when we do not notice ourselves. When we are so wrapped up in the moment, that’s when she freezes us. We seldom sense her camera click.
Indeed, looking at her work, the image is so captivating we do not even stop to think, to question, to wonder who did it and how did they do it.
Listen to Ming Smith tell us how she gives us something special to look at.
Billie Holiday is iconic. She took the inspiration of Pops (Louis Armstrong) and literally created a standard for songsters. When I first heard her recorded voice, I was not overly impressed. But it wasn’t her, it was me. I was too young. I really believed that life, at its best, had the potential to be, or at least ought to be, a bed of sweet-smelling roses with very few thorns–oh, the naive of youth. I had not yet realized that the taste of sweet was so sweet precisely because inevitably, if we lived, we would come to know bitter so well. Nor had I conceptualized how the twin siblings of sweet and sour were inextricably woven into the very fabric of life.
Billie’s signature 1939-song was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher. While the subject matter has too often been considered controversial, what I had overlooked was the tremendous social consciousness and commitment Billie Holiday exhibited not only in singing the song, but also going on to record the song–this when the lynching of Black people was an occasion for a Sunday afternoon picnic by racists and their families–yes, in some cases, children were brought to observe the ritual murders.
A major reason that Billie herself was the subject of an attempted legal lynching was because she had called them out. Sang them out. This was more than mere protest. This was defiance: putting one’s career, how one will be eternally perceived, putting all of that on the frontlines. Standing up and singing out, when many performers were afraid to even say the names of tortured victims. Of course, there were some who did. And yes, the NAACP had promoted anti-lynching campaigns way back in 1918.
Yet, no popular figure did what our light-skinned, dark lady of song dared do. If it came to that, popularity be damned. Think of it: a so-called “torch singer” who had miserable luck with men, a lady who was betrayed by a lying, fake-ass lover as she lay on her death bed. Think of it. She sings a song written by a communist focusing on the deadly travails of Black men and also of Black women in the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties. Billie condemns what was then an all-American past-time.
For me, her upright, warrior stance was a reason to love, to always revere and respect Billie Holiday. Not the maudlin woe is me lament of Pop’s “what did I do / to be so Black and blue”. Billie knew. It was not a question of what did we do. We didn’t hang ourselves. As tragic a tale as it was, the racist murdering of us, was a stain on the society we struggled with and strove to surmount. Did the devil make them do it? Or were some of them really little devils with their knees on our necks, replacing ropes when no other noose was near at hand.
I think of another stalwart soul, Ida B. Wells, mounting a major campaign throughout the first third of the twentieth-century and refusing to be quiet about our twisted deaths in the land of both our birth and, wickedly, too often of our murder in killing fields that even occurred in town squares. We may forgive our country but we should never forget that far too many of our not-so-distant relatives, neighbors, and legal authority figures are literally murderers, murderers of the first degree.
Thank you Billie Holiday. Thank you our Lady of both our beautiful, and unfortunately also of our tragic, days plowing this bitter earth, which, in the words of Dinah Washington, another great singer, we tussle with striving to come to the conclusion that it may not be so bitter after all, i.e. after all our efforts to wrestle with racists as we continue, somehow, to find and share love with and for each other.
Marie-Pierra Kakoma was born in 1996 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her father from Congo. Her mother from Rwanda. Both were physicians. Her mother was imprisoned for a brief period. Her father successfully struggled to get his wife released. Subsequently, her mother and sister fled to Belgium, and a couple of years later, she joined her mother. Her father followed later and eventually, the family was fully reunited in Belgium.
Her’s is a depressingly common story with seemingly a happy ending, except her family wanted her to be a professional. She, however, loved music. By the time she was nineteen, she was kicked out. Initially, she lived on the streets and eventually found a corner in a music studio while working odd jobs. But she never gave up her dream of professionally making music.
Eventually, she rounded-up a crew and began performing under the professional name of Lous and the Yakuza. She has found success in a nascent modeling career and also has gone on to snare her first major label album, Gore, which was released in 2019. And now she has a Tiny Desk internet video.
Although she sings in French, her talent breaks past linguistic barriers. Given her unquenchable will to survive and succeed, Kakoma is a multifaceted talent who undoubtedly will make her mark in the world of entertainment.