A Several-Day Series Celebrating the Inimitable Artist
As the result of two rare imported CDs my best friend gave me for my birthday, I have been plunged once again into the dizzying, wondrous, sometimes intimidating, always exhilarating musical universe that is known as Nina Simone. Despite being my self-proclaimed favorite musical artist for a number of years now, Nina is not a musician I find myself playing and returning to often—her music is often too much of an emotional experience to indulge in lightly or constantly—but on the other hand, it also seems that on a fairly regular basis she pulls me back to her again like a magnet, a musical eclipse dictating everything that I listen to for a fairly extended period of time.
And one of those times is right now, and I feel moved to write something as a tribute to this artist that is capable through a few impromptu notes on a piano an improvised phrasing of a line leave me in a state of awe. But as I began to ponder how I wanted to approach this celebratory entry, it became broader and more elaborate, until I now find myself inspired to attempt a personal first: a series spanning several days.
The question then is how to kick off such a thing, and ultimately I’ve decided to let the lady speak for herself (because god knows she doesn’t need anybody to do the talking). Compliments of the limitless treasure trove offhandedly known as YouTube, I first present a clip of Nina performing at the 1969 Harlem Festival in Central Park (find a nice write-up of the event here). Whether meeting Nina for the first time or already a fan as doggedly devoted as I am, this to me is the perfect encapsulation of Nina both as a person and as a supreme musical artist. Please take a look:
The song she’s performing, “Ain’t Got No; I Got Life,” a fusion of two songs from the musical “Hair,” happens to also be my personal favorite of the hundreds of songs Nina sang and performed over her decades-long career. But what knocks me out about this clip is that it manages to be at once a political proclamation (the string of white police officers surrounding the black audience doesn’t let us forget the place, time and historical context) but just judging from the way Nina sits there at the piano, it’s also undeniably a very pointed personal statement as well. She’s certainly tipping her head her hat to the Civil Rights Movement that was swirling around her and every other person in that audience and the African American community as a whole in the late 1960’s, but she’s also resolutely doing it on her own terms. If the song has been interpreted as referring to slavery and black oppression, the lyrics (a celebration of self-empowerment) can also be taken as Nina implying something along the lines of “fuck you” to her audience—or at least the audience members not willing to be led into the musical territory she has staked out for herself. And that, I think, is what I love most about Nina Simone. I can sit there and say “Nina, what the hell?” but I always know she’s going to do exactly what she wants, regardless of my reaction, or if I’m willing to to follow.
The thing is, I almost always do.