A Thing Worth Cherishing, Worth Fighting For
by SARA BIVIGOU
Nina Simone makes me feel ready. Which is to say whenever I listen to her I spring up — black, female, alive.
I met Nina a couple of months before she died, was introduced to her on a BBC2 music programme which was snippets of archive interviews strung together with live performances. It ran through the ups and downs of her story and showed clips of her most electrifying performances — Village Gate 62, Carnegie Hall 64, Harlem Cultural Festival 69, Montreaux Jazz Festival 76. I learnt what a formidable presence she was on and off stage and what a hard won thing it was to command an audience the way she did. All that childhood rehearsal, all the rejection, everything you’ve got to take from yourself to give to a crowd. (“…using everything you’ve got inside you sometimes to barely make a note, or if you have to strain to sing, you sing” she said, “so sometimes I sound like gravel, and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”) That sacrifice as dangerous blessing, exquisite curse. It was transformative for me to see a black woman live her life as art, as a thing worth cherishing, worth fighting for, though the 70-minute programme has a sad closing act — Nina portrayed as a doddery old has-been, her fall from grace exemplified by an incident in which she fired a gun at a boy outside her home in Southern France.
Liz Garbus’ documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? is more detailed but similar in pace to the BBC outing. It whips breezily through the difficult beginnings of Nina’s life until it gets to its textured middle which focuses on her participation in the Civil Rights movement. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” Nina answers a reporter rhetorically when he wants to know why a sophisticated jazz pianist such as herself has taken to singing protest songs. Nina’s participation in the movement, the mentorships and friendships she forges inside it might make a film all of its own. A narrative that could expand to explore her talent, her work ethic, her demons, her quirks and what it means for any black artist to live in the fullness of loving, creating, fighting for black people. Nina was besties with Lorraine Hansberry and their camaraderie alone would be worthy of 120 minutes of silver screen exploration. “We never talked about men or clothes,” Simone wrote of their friendship in her memoir “It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution — real girls’ talk.”
Nina lived in a Mount Vernon, NY house with 4 acres of land, next door to Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz and their six daughters. There what is loosely described as ‘the intellectual wing’ of the movement — Hughes, Hansberry, Stokely Carmichael, James Baldwin — gathered to play, laugh, eat, think, be. I so want to peek in on Nina and her friends at dinner, watch them go about their days in their excellent black bodies. See how they got fired up to do their work and how they wound down from violent setbacks. I want to listen to them pour each other drinks and tell rude jokes.
It wasn’t all good though. Nina married Andrew Stroud, a police sergeant who became her manager. Presumably because he is too juicy a primary source to ignore Garbus lets Stroud hold court in archival footage. He speaks sideways to a blurry lens of managing Nina to success and discouraging her from activism. I’m not objective but Andrew is hard to like. When he’s on-screen I find myself glaring a little, snarling a lot. Andrew admits to hitting Nina. He likens her to a barking dog for the way she “put down white people.” He and Nina had a child, Lisa. (It’s important to learn that your heroes aren’t saints but human and capable of the indefensible, which I did while listening to Lisa’s painful accounts of her mother’s abandonment, impatience and violence towards her.)
Garbus shows us Nina’s diary, a series of urgent scribbles reveal Nina’s battles with her depression, how burnt up she was by the twin flames of hope and anger. Her faith in the movement becomes exhaustion. She is unfulfilled in her marriage. She contemplates suicide and then death begins taking her friends. Activist Medgar Evers is murdered, Hansberry is lost to pancreatic cancer, Malcom X is killed, Hughes dies from complications relating to his prostate cancer and on 4 April 1968 Dr Martin Luther King is assassinated. Nina’s bass player writes “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” in the hours following King’s death. Nina and her band perform it three days later at Westbury Music Fair dedicating their whole show to him. Nina ends “Why”? with a protracted monologue on love and loss. Current versions of the album ‘Nuff Said preserve the 6-minute speech in its entirety though for a time, on vinyl, it was cut out.“Who can go on?” Nina asks, her voice crumbling, her whole body sounding on the verge of collapse.
Nina eventually leaves Andrew, writes a note — “I ain’t got nothing to give, Andrew. And I’m too tired to even talk about it. You go your way. I’ll go mine” — and flees what she would from then on call the United Snakes of America.
Nina goes to Barbados and at the suggestion of Carmichael’s wife Miriam Makeba to Africaaaaaaaaaaa — which is how Nina pronounces it in her booming near baritone. For two years she lives in Liberia, a country founded in 1847 by former slaves. She is a free black woman in a free black state. No pressure to perform, no desire to please, no white sensibilities to coddle or endlessly confront. Her life in Liberia is one long exhale until she runs out of money.
The final third of the film is the story of tragic Nina. So, what happened? Miss Simone was too black and too angry, apparently. So many of the reviews I read pick up that thread. Cool, critical voices calmly conclude that Nina’s blackness and her anger meant that yes, she was destined to be unappreciated, to live unfulfilled. All compounded by her longstanding mental health problems — on unknown meds in the 60s, she was diagnosed as bipolar in the 80s. While it’s true that her world didn’t — our world doesn’t — know how to appreciate black female genius, making that failure the sum of Nina’s story diminishes her. I am uninterested in Nina’s life as a tragedy or worse a cautionary tale. I’m uninterested in the hypothetical fortunes of a less black, less angry Nina. She’s the woman who introduced herself to Dr. Martin Luther King in this way: “I’m not non-violent.” (His response: “That’s okay sister. You don’t have to be.”) You hear it in “Mississippi Goddam”. That black female anger as textured as it is misunderstood. Nina blew her voice out singing her indictment of America’s racism; it never returned to its former octave.
Garbus’ film barely mentions Nina’s love life, nothing on her first marriage, her affairs in Barbados and Liberia. Nothing of the Nina who sang “Be My Husband”, “Do I Move You”, “You Can Have Him”, “Images”, the Nina who trilled of finding true freedom, who had moments of living with no fear. Without real reference to any of this her story feels muted, incomplete, a downer. Maybe I’m taking my fatigue out on What Happened, Miss Simone?, but I am tired of sad tales of talented black lives, all nuance crowded out. I am tired of solemnity, tired of thinking about how black artists (people) suffer. And ugh, how noble our suffering is! Nina has always meant much more to me — and so many black girls — than suffering. We listen to her and we spring up.
“African Mailman (Nina Simone cover)” – Lauryn Hill (mp3)
“Don’t Let Me Be Understood (Nina Simone cover)” – Mary J. Blige (mp3)