Nina is song. Not just a vocalist or singer, but actual song. The physical vibration and the meaning too. A reflection and projection of a certain segment of our mesmerizing ethos. Culturally specific in attitude, in rhythm, in what she harmonizes with and what she clashes against, merges snugly into and hotly confronts in rage. All that she is. Especially the contradictions and contrarinesses. And why not. If Nina is song. Our song. She would have to be all that.
Nina is not her name. Nina is our name. Nina is how we call ourselves remade into an uprising. Eunice Waymon started out life as a precocious child prodigy — amazingly gifted at piano. She went to church, sang, prayed and absorbed all the sweat of the saints: the sisters dropping like flies and rising like angels all around her. Big bosoms clad in white. Tambourine-playing, cotton-chopping, tobacco-picking, corn-shucking, floor-mopping, child-birthing, man-loving hands. The spray of sweat and other body secretions falling on young Eunice’s face informing her music for decades to come with the fluid fire of quintessential Black musicking. But there was also the conservatory and the proper way to approach the high art of music. The curve of the hands above the keyboard. The ear to hear and mind to understand the modulations in and out of various keys. The notes contained in each chord. She aspired to be a concert pianist. But at root she was an obeah woman. With voice and drum she could hold court for days, dazzle multitudes, regale us with the splendor, enrapture us with the serpentine serendipity of her black magic womanistness articulated in improvised, conjured incantations. “My daughter said, mama, sometimes I don’t understand these people. I told her I don’t understand them either but I’m born of them, and I like it.” Nina picked up Moses’ writhing rod, swallowed it and now hisses back into us the stories of our souls on fire. Hear me now, on fire.
My first memory of Nina is twofold. One that music critics considered her ugly and openly said so. And two that she was on the Tonight show back in the late fifties/very early sixties singing “I Love You Porgy.” Both those memories go hand in hand. Both those memories speak volumes about what a Black woman could and could not do in the Eisenhower era. They called her ugly because she was Black. Literally. Dark skinned. In the late fifties, somewhat like it is now, only a tad more adamant, couldn’t no dark skinned woman be pretty. In commercial terms, the darker the uglier. Nina was dark. She sang “Porgy” darkly. Made you know that the love she sang about was the real sound of music, and that Julie Andrews didn’t have a clue. Was something so deep, so strong that I as a teenager intuitively realized that Nina’s sound was both way over my head and was also the water within which my soul was baptized. Which is probably why I liked it, and is certainly why my then just developing moth wings sent me shooting toward the brilliant flashes of diamond bright lightening which shot sparking cobalt blue and ferrous red out of the black well of her mouth. This was some elemental love. Some of the kind of stuff I would first read about in James Baldwin’s Another Country, a book that America is still not ready to understand. Love like that is what Nina’s sound is.
Her piano was always percussive. It hit you. Moved you. Socked it to you. She could hit one note and make you sit up straight. Do things to your anatomy. That was Nina. Made a lot of men wish their name was Porgy. That’s the way she sang that song. I wanted to grow up and be Porgy. Really. Wanted to grow up and get loved like Nina was loving Porgy. For a long time, I never knew nobody else sang that song. Who else could possibly invest that song with such a serious message, serious meaning? Porgy was Nina’s man. Nina’s song. She loved him. And he was well loved.
In my youth, I didn’t think she was ugly. Nor did I didn’t think she was beautiful. She just looked like a dark Black woman. With a bunch of make-up on in the early days. Later, I realized what she really looked like was an African mask. Something to shock you into a realization that no matter how hard you tried, you would never ever master white beauty because that is not what you were. Fundamental Blackness. Severe lines. Severe, you hear me. I mean, you hear Nina. Dogonic, chiseled features. Bold eyes. Ancient eyes. Done seen and survived slavery eyes. A countenance so serious that only hand carved mahogany or ebony could convey the features.
The hip-notism of her. The powerful peer. Percussive piano. Pounding pelvis. The slow, unhurried sureness. An orgasm that starts in the toes and ends up zillions of long seconds later emanating as a wide-mouthed silent scream uttered in some sonic range between a sigh and a whimper. A coming so deep, you don’t tremble, you quake. I feel Nina’s song and think of snakes. Damballa undulations. Congolesian contractions. She is an ancient religion renewed. The starkness of resistance. And nothing Eurocentric civilization can totally contain. Dark scream. Be both the scream and the dark. A crusty fist shot straight up in the air, upraised head. Maroon. Runaway. No more auction block. The one who did not blink when their foot was cut off to keep them from running away. And they just left anyway. Could stand before the overseer and not be there. Could answer drunken requests to sing this or that love song and create a seance so strong you sobered up and afterwards reeled backward, pawing the air cause you needed a drink. You could not confuse Nina Simone with some moon/june, puritan love song. Nina was the sound that sent slave masters slipping out of four posted beds and roaming through slave quartered nights. Yes, Nina was. And was too the sound that sent them staggering back with faces and backs scratched, teeth marked cheeks, kneed groins, and other signs of resistance momentarily tattooed on their pale bodies. And despite her fighting spirit, or perhaps because of her fighting spirit, the strength and ultra high standard of femininity she established with her every breath, these men who would be her master would not sell her. Might whip her a little, but not maim her. Well, nothing beyond cutting the foot so she would stay. With Nina it could get ugly if you came at her wrong, and something in her song said any White man approaching with intentions of possessing me is wrong. Nina sounded like that. Which is why this anti-fascist German team wrote “Pirate Jenny” and it was a long, long time before I realized that the song wasn’t even about Black people.
Nina Simone was/is something so potent, so fascinating. A fertile flame. A cobra stare. Once you heard her, you could not avoid her, avoid the implications of her sound, be ye Black, White or whatever. Her blackness embraced the humanity in all who heard her, who experienced being touched by her, whose eyes welled up with tears sometimes, feeling the panorama of sensations she routinely but not rotely evoked wherever, whenever she sat at the altar of her piano and proceeded to unfurl the spiritual history of her people. When Nina sang, sings, if you are alive, and hear her, really hear her, you become umbilicaled into the cosmic and primal soul of suffering and resurrection, despair and hope, slavery and freedom that all humans have, at one level or another, both individually and ethnically, experienced, even if only vicariously. After all, who knows better the range of reactions to the blade, than does the executioner who swings the axe?
Nina hit you in the head, in the heart, in the gut and in the groin. But she hit you with music, and thus her sonorous fusillades, even at their most furious, did you no harm. In fact, the resulting outpouring of passions was a healing. A lancing of sentimental sacs which held the poisons of oppressive tendencies, the biles of woe-filled self-pity. A draining from the body of those social toxicants which embitter one’s soul. A removal of the excrescent warts of prejudice and chauvinism that blight one’s civil make-up.
Sangoma Simone sang and her sound was salving and salubrious. Her concerts were healing circles. Her recordings medicinal potions. She gave so much. Partaking of her drained you of cloying mundanities. Poured loa-ed essentials into the life cup. You left her presence, filled to your capacity and aware of how much there was to achieve by being a communicative human being.
Nina Simone. Supper clubs could not hold her. Folk songs were not strong enough. Popular standards too inane. Even though she did them. Did them to death. Took plain soup, and when she finished adding her aural herbs, there you had gumbo. Nina hit her stride with the rebellious uprises of the sixties, and the fierce pride of the seventies. Became a Black queen, an African queen. Became beautiful. Remember, I am talking about a time when we really believed Black was beautiful. Not just ok, acceptable, nothing to be ashamed of, but beautiful. Proud. And out there. Not subdued. Not refined. Not well mannered. But out there. Way out. Like Four Women. Like Mississippi Goddamn. Like Young, Gifted And Black. Like Revolution. Like: “And I Mean Every Word Of It”. This was Nina who did an album with only herself. Voice. Piano. And some songs that commented on the human condition in terms bolder than had ever been recorded in popular music before. Are we The Desperate Ones? Have We Lost The Human Touch?
My other memories of Nina have to do with the aftermath. I recall the aridness of counterrevolutionary America clamping down and shuttering the leading lights of the seventies. Nina’s radiance was celestial, but oh my, how costly the burning. Seeking fuel she fled into exile. Who would be her well, where could she find a cool drink of water before she died?
Then, like indiscreet body odors, the rumors and gossip began floating back. The tempest. The turning in on the self. What happens when they catch you and bring you back. Reify and commodify you, relegate you back into slavery. You are forced to fight in little and sometimes strange ways. But the thrill is gone. Cause only freedom is thrilling, and ain’t no thrill in being contained on anybody’s plantation, chained to anybody’s farm. Anybody’s, be they man, woman or child. Nobody’s. Nothing thrilling about not being liberated.
Nina, like most of us, went crazy so that she could stay sane. Just did it hard. Was a more purer crazy. Cause she had so much to be sane about. So much that leeches wanted to siphon, sip, suck.
How do you stay sane in America? You go crazy. In order to be.
To be proud. And beautiful. And woman. And dark. Black skinned. You have to go crazy to stay sane. You have to scream, just to make room for your whispers. You have to cry and cuss, so that you can kiss and love. You have to fight. Fight. Fight. Lord. Fight. I gets. Fight. So tired. Fight. Of. Fight. Fighting all the time. But ooohhh child things are gonna get easier.
Don’t tell me about her deficiencies, or her screwed up business affairs, her temper tantrums, her lack of understanding, her bad luck with men, her walking off the stage on the audience. Don’t tell me about nothing. None of that. Because all of that ain’t Nina. Nina Simone is song. And all of that is just whatever she got to do. Like she said: Do What You Got To Do. Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.
I play Nina Simone. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. This morning. Tonight at noon. Under the hot sun of Amerikkka, merrily, merrily, merrily denigrating us. In those terrible midnights. I play Nina Simone. Just to stay sane. Stay Black. To remember that Black is beautiful, not pretty. Beautiful is more than pretty. Beautiful is deep. I play beautiful Nina Simone. Nina Song. I play Nina Simone. And whether Nina’s song turns you off or Nina’s song turns you on, whose problem, whose opportunity is that?
No. Let me correct the English. I don’t play Nina Simone. I serious Nina Simone. Serious. Simone. Put on her recordings and Nzinga strut all night long. And even that is not long enough.
To be young, or ancient. Gifted, or ordinary. But definitely Black, definitely the terrible beauty of Blackness. Nina Simone. Nina Song. Nina. Nina. Nina.
Oh my god. I give thanx for Nina Simone.
—kalamu ya salaam