Her skin was black. Her manner was tough. She was awfully bitter in her days, because her people were once slaves. What did they call her?
Her name was Nina Simone.
I borrowed these lines from the song “Four Women,” a biographical sketch of four negro women growing up in segregationist America.
Nina Simone wrote this haunting ballad in 1966 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, two years before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Spell-binding, compelling and at times scathing and foreboding, the songstress was dubbed the “High Priestess of Soul” for her imposing stage presence and readiness to use her music to take on social injustice.
|The high priestess|
Nina Simone embarked on her musical journey at a time when racial tension in America was coming to a boil and the country could no longer turn a blind eye to the widespread oppression and violence against black Americans. In “Mississippi Goddam,” she responded to the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, one of the watershed events in the Roaring Sixties, and hinted at the radical approach of seeking a separate black state. The political underpinning of her music alone, to say nothing of her talent, was enough to make Nina Simone one of my favorite singers/songwriters of all times.
Simone’s singing style was eclectic, combining elements of jazz, soul, blues, gospel, R&B and pop. Though her vibrato was often loose and her high notes pitchy at times, these flaws did little to detract from the hypnotic power of her music. As a pianist, she drew from her classical roots honed at the venerable Julliard School in New York and infused her playing with grit and fervor. No single song captures her vocal and instrumental style better than the riveting “Sinnerman.” With apocalyptic words and dark exuberance, the ten-minute epic was a somber warning to all mortals, black or white, that they can neither run nor hide from the Lord’s watchful eye.
Nina Simone left America in 1970 and never returned to her motherland. While some say her self-imposed exile was for tax reasons, others believe that the songstress grew tired of the constant fight for acceptance in America. Simone would spend the next two decades drifting between the Caribbean, North Africa and various parts of Europe before settling in Southern France.
In the semi-autographical and deeply nostalgic “My Father,” released in 1978 on my favorite album, Baltimore, the protagonist reminisces over her childhood in Ohio under her father’s care (Simone grew up in Tryon, North Carolina, with her parents). A blue collar negro, her father dreams of one day sailing on the Seine. Here, Simone offers yet another plausible explanation for her decision to leave America: to fulfill her childhood dream of escaping from the South and living in Europe free from the scars of slavery.
With sultry lyricism, the protagonist laments:
My father always promised me
That we would live in France
We’d go boating on the Seine
And I would learn to dance
And I live in Paris now
My children dance and sing
Words of a miner’s tongue
Language they have never sung
I sail my memories of home
Like boats across the Seine
And watch my father’s eye, watch the setting sun
As it sets in my father's eyes again
|The American Civil Rights Movement|
Nina Simone died this month six years ago in Carry-le-Rouet, France, leaving behind a discography of 50 albums and inspiring a generation of R&B singers, including Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys and John Legend. She lived through one of darkest pages in American history and spent the second half of her life a musical gypsy on the other side of the Atlantic, bitterly looking on at the racial divide in America.
It is a shame that Simone did not live to see her country elect the first African American president and how a man, so “young, gifted and black,” puts a spell on the nation reeling from financial ruin and injured pride.
The high priestess would have been so proud.