My Nina: The Immortal

An excerpt from Dampen to Bend: An Anthology Mapping Transport and Transition. Coal is Still Seeking Submissions.  An essay/memoir about music by Feminist Philosophy Editor Malkia Charlee NoCry. This is excerpt from a longer version to be found in the anthology.

By Malkia Charlee NoCry

“Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music.” 
Nina Simone

Nina Simone at home on the piano.

I don’t remember the exact moment I fell in love with Nina Simone. Though I wish I did, so I could celebrate the day as our anniversary. I remember when I was 12 it was all about Phyllis Hymen. And at 13, I wrote a poem about Aminata Moseka (Abbey Lincoln). I thought that was the most glorious name, Aminata Moseka. It sounded like drums.

When I first heard Nina sing, then, at 13, I would grow depressed.

Four Women was such a haunting melody that my mother would play on sunny Sunday afternoons. I didn’t want to be any of those women. Or rather…I was afraid I was already one of them, being born.

But one day; oh it was just magic one afternoon with college radio and my blank Dollar Tree cassettes for making mixed-tapes. The firmament bent and showered jewels through an alchemist’s hand. There were torrents of wind that brought fragranced diamonds and lightning that hung in the sky twinkling like chandeliers.

I’m serious, that’s what it sounded like. That was the sound of Nina Simone interpreting the Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington song “Wild is the Wind“:

Give me more / than one caress /
Satisfy this / hungriness /
Let the wind / blow through your heart /
For wild is the wind /
You… / touch me… / I hear the sound /
of mandolins / You… / kiss me… /
With your kiss / my life begins /
Daddy you’re spring to me /
All things / to me… /
Don’t you know you’re / Life itself…

The piano keys falling like cold rain in London, salt water hitting a dry beach – the yearning unimaginable. As a girl, it was like a smooth melting, hot wax and bubble baths. And as a woman, that desire, pure desire – that need she made magic from keys and brought thundering from the depths of not just her lungs but soul – I still find it hard not to cry when I hear the 1964 live performance in New York.

“The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.” Lorraine Hansberry

As a girl, I didn’t understand the magnitude of what I was hearing – the up close awe-inspiring defiance of a dark-skinned classical pianist from North Carolina who rose up to tell America “Mississippi Goddamn” – I mean this woman was power. This woman created whole realities with her music, she transcended that of most singers, she is part of the reason why jazz is classical, international, good.

Nina Simone, who was born on the 21st February 1933, began playing the piano at the age of three.

Nina Simone “Live at the Montreux”, Album Cover.

As a woman now, I realise my fear of Nina as a girl was because I, as so many others, would grow up in this world and become a kind of ekphrazein poetic of Aunt Sarah and Peaches. Most times too pained for Peaches; but also far more angry than Aunt Sarah too. I am not the mulatto Safronia, but I do live between worlds when I have to. I am neither a sexual nymph nor a man’s Sweet Thing – but for short times all Black women in a patriarchal society may be cast in the roles of both. At any given time as Millennial Black women, we can be one of the Four Women, or shades of everything in between. And that’s a scary place to still be – it’s a caging place to be – a circle, round and round.

Women sitting in prisons away from the love of their children; women from Nigeria working in kitchens as Abu Dhabi slaves; Sweet Things created through capture; women having their lives turn to ash through drugs, through abuse.

Because people don’t love Black women, especially the ones who fail to serve their needs , we remain invisible.  Black women are dressed up as Pop stars and Hollywood socialites, but we still are one of the Four.

Unlike a lot of the other bluesy jazz chartreuse’s of the day, Nina didn’t beg, she didn’t plead – she just told; asked for the truth of love. And that… that’s something too I didn’t know as a girl. How lonely the path of telling…and that no one will really hear you; perhaps they are not strong enough for the thunder of your cries – especially if you refuse to be shackled by the desire for love.

If you tender a gentle declaration of longing…and birth sweet music from the moistness when you go unheard. That’s all you can do, it’s all anybody can expect.

Nina Simone would have never sung if she was accepted into the world renown Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. And for all of us who listen to her voice, we secretly thank the heavens for the racism that denied her entry into those most elite music schools she so desired.

Nina Simone performing in 1965 at Annie’s Club. Photo: AP.

But as someone who also knows the road of making-do, of dreams – ah dreams is too weak, it’s an identity – an identity stripped away and re-fashioned by the outside world, it is Nina’s hunger that becomes a grumbling in my own gut. See, if Langston wrote it, what would he say happens when an identity is deferred? It always, I can assure you – it always feels like ghost-walking. And Nina lived with this – hell she triumphed in this. But it’s a battle, and you’re bound to get hurt in any war.

“The worst thing about that kind of prejudice… is that while you feel hurt and angry and all the rest of it, it feeds you self-doubt. You start thinking, perhaps I am not good enough.” Nina Simone

Statue of Nina Simone, erected 21st Feb 2010 in Tryon, North Carolina.

Her voice… she desired for so long, to reach a day she wouldn’t have to sing – make enough money to quit. And we can only imagine why. In her own autobiography told with brutal honesty, you hear that the clearest moments of life was when she was a girl, training her fingers. After that, she had to find a way to stand erect as the storms of change, the tumultuous earthquakes of life and her own quest to keep herself who she remembered herself to be – was slowly chipping away at her very sanity. Her hoodoo magic music was double-edged, rendering her so lonely. Alienated from her original she and from the love of he. Because men… The last thing a Black woman can expect is anybody to carry the burdens of a woman come mule.

I once read an excerpt from a short story in a literary magazine where a woman author wrote

“it’s easy for women to pretend their genius, because society doesn’t know what a genius looks like on a woman. For men, it’s harder, because they know what to expect”.

Perhaps, for a clever woman, she can create a small circle in a pseudo-intellectual world, and then pretend its sexism when people say her ideas and thoughts are not inspired. And for men, who are genius, there is the direct ascent to success, and it is quite difficult for a man who isn’t as talented to pretend there is some sort of exceptionalism being overlooked in a society slanted to penile favor. I will not defend the author of that statement… It just came to mind as I pondered. As it was an association exercise, that led me to think, Nina Simone is not applauded or protected by us women, as something amazing, something utterly unique. Our fluid master and the envy of Bach. Our living, breathing passion and philosophy.

Our genius.

1963 Nina Simone Photo Shoot. Photo: AP

So unprotected is the memory of this icon – and I hate to have to use that over-played triviality, the word “icon”, but I cannot think of another suitable term short of Goddess for the gift Nina gave the planet Earth – that the Hollywood powers that be will make a “love story” out of the life that was Nina Simone.

A love story. How cute.

To set aside for one second that this biopic is to be played by a caramel skinned Zoe Saldana, nowhere near the dark-skinned curvaceous physicality of Nina Simone. We set this aside as the most frightening battering will not come from the misinterpretation of Nina’s African beauty and sex appeal, but the falsification of Nina Simone’s life for which this film will so unashamedly engage. Nina Simone died in 2003, and she is vulnerable in death, as we who love her, know the grounds would shake by her own seismic prismatic voice at the script Cynthia Mort has written and plans to direct.

Black women icons are consigned to a fictionalised status; their lives so unimportant, so inconsequential anyone can play them and anything can be said.

It is bad enough that BBC films portray famous Broadmoor genius lunatic twins as white women in the ’86 (for no apparent reason) – even our sane and world-famous icons can be completely misrepresented with no repercussions – more likely commercial rewards.

Nina passing on the gift of music. Beautiful photo of Nina Simone with daughter Lisa Celeste Stroud (artist name Simone). Photo: AP.

Just as Beyoncé portrayed Etta James as a prostitute, lacking the decency to learn about the woman’s life, blindly following a script written by a male Studio-Exec somewhere in the La La Land that is Los Angeles; she was rewarded for this farce of history, by singing (inferiorly) Etta James’ signature song “At Last” at the White House inaugural ball –

when Etta was still alive!

And as Jennifer Hudson is going to abide, as if she has no identity, to the Studio’s request not to speak with Winnie Mandela before she etches her interpretation onto the Silver Screen forever – knowing (as she should) the countless cinematic attacks on the woman and her life, she will no doubt receive praise and perhaps another Oscar to glitter her shelves. And though Salma Hayek co-produced the film “Frida” adapted from a book of Frida Kahlo’s life, she had no care but to portray Frida as a sexed-crazed cheerleader of the communist movement – a portrayal which won her an Academy Award nomination.

In “The Help” our nameless grandmothers and great-grandmothers were no better than women who found glee from frying chicken – another glitzy spectacle highlighting the non-existent face of Black womanhood in mass media.

So we arrive on this day, that too Saldana plans to irreverently play “90s Nina” in a Hollywood biopic- so disrespectful of this woman’s life, that she will even portray Nina as having a love affair with her Gay manager – for which there is no evidence, and her daughter Lisa Celeste Stroud (better known as Simone) has rebuffed. In Nina’s autobiography, she lamented the fact she never found love (none that would match the power of her music, the magnitude of her desire – not real love). But what do you know, Hollywood knows better than she, as Cynthia Mort creates love affairs Nina Simone somehow missed in her own life.

Nina Simone with Daughter Lisa Celeste. Photo: AP.

My Nina, she… She nurtured a part of my humanity. I can’t even type without crying… My Nina got me through so many dark times, and I mean this quite truly. She sang my heart alive; she gave me excitement in my muscles, that tingling in the skin. I go on, I triumph, I write and I fight because Nina, I will love for you.

And if he never clings to me

Nina, I will still write for you. And hope my words can make great music that can be heard in that luminous palace of many lovers, champagne and all the colours. Parisian nights…days of healing rains.

There are many people who will lie, misinterpret and misrepresent Nina Simone’s wonder.

I know this, because she is a dark-skinned Black woman with immense talents. The world is still filled with liars working for gold and growth remains fundamentally arrested.

And this biopic is just another in a long string of lies against great women. So no, I am not surprised in the least. Disappointed…but the current philosophies and realities we live under are already staggeringly disappointing.

Nina Simone in Paris in the 1990s. Photo: AP

To cope, I find solace in the fact that my Nina is immortal. The music lives for itself.

As Nina lives within us. As all the great women, our mothers, our shapers of humanity.

No matter what they say.

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