She Put a Spell on Us (for Nina Simone)

by Mark Anthony Neal

1 May 2003

 

“I could what you do, EASY! Believe me / Frontin’ niggaz gives me heebe-geebes / So while you imitatin’ Al Capone / I be Nina Simone and defecating on your microphone”
—Lauryn Hill, “Ready Or Not”

“My skin is black, My arms are long / My hair is wooly, My back is strong / Strong enough to take the pain / Afflicted again and again / What do they call me?”
—Nina Simone, “Four Women”

She was the voice of a movement. Deep blues, even darker hues, from the Delta to Dakar. When the old guard (Stokley and Martin and Ralph and dem)—in the days before Aretha—talked about the “voice” of the movement, they always invoked Nina Simone, Ms. Simone to all those who couldn’t wrap their minds around this woman, Black woman, protest woman, iconical woman, the one woman whose very voice summoned the spirits lost in middle passages, by overseer’s lashes, and charred fruit from southern trees—the sprits of blues whisperers, sacred singers, heavenly shouters and insatiable desires. This woman, Black woman, was the voice of a people.

When Nina Simone died quietly in her home in southern France on 21 April 2003, the spiritual essence of three generations of freedom fighters passed on to the otherworld—the proverbial crossroads—with her. With a voice that sang the power of three centuries of disenfranchisement among peoples of African descent in the West and classic West African facial features that suggested that there was little distance between the Tyron, North Carolina of her birth and Kwame Nkrumuh’s Ghana, Nina Simone couldn’t help being political. Listening to her sing “My Baby Cares for Me” from her debut recording Little Girl Blue (1959), one has to pause as she utters the line “Liz Taylor is not his style”. Coming from the mouth of this woman Black, her invocation of “America’s Sweetheart” was indeed a celebratory gesture towards the beauty of Black women. (In an ironic reversal, the song was featured in a 1987 Chanel ad campaign.) Simone’s only top 20 pop recording, Gershwin’s “I Love’s You Porgy”, was drawn from that first album.

Increasingly though, Simone music began to more directly echo the tenor of the times. Once the darling of the supper club set, by the early 1960s Simone was more likely to be found performing at a Civil Rights fundraiser. Simone was brought into the Civil Rights Movement at the behest of her good friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun). It was because of her experiences with the movement that Simone wrote and recorded her most potent critique of American racism. As she recounts in her autobiography I Put a Spell on You, she was dramatically moved by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four little black girls. The attack took place less than three weeks after the March on Washington and marks a turning point in the Civil Rights movement as most of the movement’s major figures, notably Martin Luther King, Jr. and SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) were pushed closer to radicalism. Simone restrained her own rage—she purportedly wanted to go out in the streets and shoot some white folks—and transformed that rage into the scathing political tome “Mississippi Goddam”. The song was recorded live at Carnegie Hall in March of 1964. Simone’s career—her access to the super club set-would be radically altered by the recording.

At the beginning of the song, she announces “the name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam’. And I mean every word of it,” as her largely white audience laughs at her comments. The brilliance of the song lies in the way she initially destabilized the immediate reception of the song, by placing the song’s lyrics on top of a swinging show tune beat. It was as if the song was performed to the music of the “Sambo Shuffle”—that moment when Sambo decides to stop “shuckin’ and jivin’” and actually starts to speak “truth to power.” The audience is still laughing with Simone after she sings the opening chorus (“Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee makes me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi, Goddam”) and states that “this is show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet”. But this is where the song, and it’s reception, changes. Simone rips into America’s race policy, simmering as she sings “don’t tell me, I tell you / Me and my people just about due / I’ve been there so I know / You keep on saying go slow”, a reference, in part, to the Brown vs. The Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas) Supreme Court decision which urged the desegregation of American public schools with the oxymoronic notion of “all deliberate speed”. The audience is dead silent after the verse, a fact that Simone acknowledges, when she says to the crowd “bet you thought I was kidding”. The moment seemed to only fuel the fury that was brewing underneath Simone’s performance up to that point. When she starts singing “This whole country is full of lies / You all gonna die, die like flies”, it is clear that she is in a totally different space-one that was in opposition to the non-violent stance of the mainstream Civil Right Movement and one that would portend the violence in American cities like Los Angeles (Watts), Newark and Detroit in the coming years.

Though contemporary audiences often miss the significance of Simone’s rejection of the religiosity of the Civil Right Movement—the woman publicly uttered Goddamn and openly questioned the value of prayer—or the risk she took at the time with her critique (the Dixie Chicks must have made her proud in her last days), the reality is that more well known and celebrated challenges to power, like NWA’s “F*ck the Police” could not have occurred without Simone’s brave stance. Literally all of the mainstream protest music recorded by black artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”, The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”, Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home”, Roberta Flack’s “Compared to What?”, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, were indebted to “Mississippi Goddam”. Simone would record other black protest anthems like Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free”, which had been a long-time favorite of protest marchers, and “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)”, her musical eulogy to Martin Luther King, Jr. But, as a black woman, Simone also spoke to burgeoning black feminist and Womanist movements.

Well before theorist discussed the realities of black postmodern identities, Simone presented a portrait of black femininity that spoke to various intersections of race, color, caste, sexuality and gender. I have little doubt that Nina Simone’s “Four Women” was somewhere in the consciousnesses of Hortense Spillers and Kimberle Crenshaw, when they wrote their ground-breaking critical essays “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987) and “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” (1989), respectively. In the song, Simone discusses the different though linked realities of Aunt Sarah (“my skin is black…my hair is wooly, my back is strong”), Saphronia (“my skin is yellow, my hair is long. Between two worlds I do belong”), Sweet Thing (“My skin is tan, my hair in fine, my hips invite you . . .”), and Peaches (“My skin is brown, my manner is tough, I’ll kill the first mother I see”). The four women, represented what Patricia Hill-Collins would later describe in her book Black Feminist Thought (1990), as the “controlling images” of black womanhood. Specifically mentioning Aunt Sarah, Saphronia, and Sweet Thing, Hill-Collins writes, “Simone explores Black women’s objectification as the Other by invoking the pain these women actually feel.” (105)

Hip-hop artists Talib Kweli Greene (with Hi-Tek) paid tribute to Nina Simone’s feminist vision on his recording Reflection Eternal (2000). Talib Kweli’s “For Woman” updates the legacies of Aunt Sarah, Saphronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches, taking into account the affects of Reaganism, crack cocaine addictions and the rampant spread of HIV infections. Michael Eric Dyson notes in his new book Open Mike: Reflections on Philosophy, Race, Sex, Culture and Religion that Kweli’s version of the song “is a study in the narrative reconstruction of the fragmented elements of black survival and a cautionary tale against the racial amnesia that destroys the fabric of black collective memory.” (300) Dyson adds that “By baptizing Simone’s sentiments in a hip-hop rhetorical form, Kweli raises new questions about the relation between history and contemporary social practice, and fuses the generational ambitions of two gifted artists.” (300).

The fact that a figure like Talib Kweli would be inclined to recover Simone’s art was lost in much of the mainstream commentary about her death. In his obituary about Simone, Peter Keepnews, ” suggest that “In the 1970s her music fell out of fashion in the United States.” (New York Times, 22 April 2003) But his comments disregard the whole generation of black youth who were introduced to Simone via her classic “Young Gifted and Black” (1969). For many folks in the post-soul and hip-hop generation, their introduction to Simone music and songwriting came via hearing “Young, Gifted and Black”, which became a mantra for the first generations to come of age after the Civil Rights era. As post-soul standard bearer Meshell Ndegeocello asserted in the Los Angeles Times, “Nina Simone was a messenger to our heart and conscience . . . No telling how many lives she touched with the simple affirmation of the beauty of being ‘Young, Gifted and Black’.” (22 April 2003).

The song, co-written with her musical director the late Weldon Irvine (a mentor to hip-hop artists like Talib Kweli and Mos Def), was meant as a tribute to her late friend Lorraine Hansberry who died of cancer in the mid-1960s. But the simple message of the song was so powerful, that is was immediately given tribute via the musical visions of Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. Franklin’s version anchors her 1972 recording Young, Gifted and Black, her most explicit political recording and Donny Hathaway’s live version of the song (he also recorded a studio version on his debut Everything is Everything, 1969), which appears on the posthumously released In Performance ranks among his best performances.

Ndegeocello’s observations about Simone finds resonance in the music of some hip-hop generation artists. Besides his “deconstruction” of “Four Woman”, Talib Kweli’s “Get By” (from his current Quality) Simone’s sampled voice (from her rendition of “Sinnerman”, which at once references the West-African subtext of much of Simone’s music and notions of Afro-religiosity (“Get By” is definitely on the “way out of no way” spiritual tip). In another example, Lauryn Hill consciously invoked Nina Simone’s name on The Fugee’s “Ready or Not” (The Score, 1996) in an effort to distinguish her womanist musings from the gangsterization of mainstream hip-hop (“so while you imitatin’ Al Capone / I be Nina Simone and defecating on your microphone”). In yet another example the famed reconstitutionists, MAW (Masters at Work’s “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez), re-mixed Simone’s “See-Line Woman” last year (for the Verve//Remixed project, giving Simone a club hit in the process.

The interests in Simone’s music by a generation of artists, largely born after her recording of “Mississippi Goddam” is just further evidence of the potency of her spirit. The title of Simone’s autobiography, I Put a Spell on You paid tribute to her rendition of the Screaming Jay Hawkins composition. In Hawkin’s hand the song was an uncomfortable (at least to white) acknowledgement of the “dark” powers of black masculinity in a society where young white women, had been largely denied access to that masculinity. But in the hands of Simone, the song was transformed into a moment of high catharsis. If Nina Simone put a spell on us, it is one that will serve those from the Delta to Dakar well into the future.

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