A once dear friend of mine loved to compare me to the American singer, songwriter, composer and pianist Nina Simone. He would send me messages saying he was listening to Nina, who reminds him of me. Instead of accepting the compliment I resisted the temptation to lash out at him and chose only to focus on the fact that he missed me.
But in the privacy of my own mind, I resented the insinuation. Don’t get me wrong, to say I loved Nina would be an understatement; I soaked my soul in her music and I truly felt that she was the only artist dead or alive at the time who could define the sound of my heart beat one small cardiac vein at a time. Her conflation of classical, jazz and pop improvisations hit just the right notes with me.
Indeed while there was a whole squad of great American soul sisters who rocked my world such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington, and they all still do, there was something distinct about Nina which rattled me, her political being got right under my skin.
A child prodigy who started playing the piano when she was three years old, she personified the ideal of black power in her body while articulating black pain and aspirations like no other male or female artist I have known of in my life. Busi Mhlongo comes a close second. She was a perfect paradox and I could relate to her.
And yet the idea that my friend whom I loved and respected saw something resembling Nina Simone in me filled me with enormous indignation. I was convinced that he must have fundamentally misunderstood who I was and what I was about, because how else could he compare me to Nina Simone?
I was scared of Nina Simone. I was startled by her genius and the fact that she got me and all of us from the past, present and future stupified me. The magnitude of her ability to feel left me nauseous and sometimes seasick in a dry Johannesburg winter. Her agility in navigating swathes of pain which seemed so infinite in a voice which could be as rough as gravel or smooth as coffee and cream left me simply unhinged. She peeled off my skin as if were a bandage covering ancient scars which were as fresh as if they had been inflicted mere minutes ago. Her grief poured out of her fingers and left me panting with awe, out of breath. Until it filled her body so much so that she could no longer contain it, it poured out of her eyes, her mouth, her skin, her nostrils, and every single breath. It was raw, and sometimes too frightening to watch.
By the time she died in Paris, France in 2003, I had read her autobiography I Put a Spell On You (1992) and heard anecdotes from those who had met her that she was a brash, bitter and unfriendly woman – an insufferable prima donna to the very end. I was greatly disappointed. Though I admired her talent I didn’t want to end up bitter and alone or spoken of in such disparaging terms by those who knew me intimately. How could someone so talented and great who fought so hard not to be minimized as an artist be reduced to nothing because of her love for whiskey and cigarettes?
While I loved her and felt immense gratitude because she helped me to dive deep into the ocean of my feelings, I didn’t want her life, it seemed too hard, too painful, too haunted, too lonely and just too much.
So when my friend compared me to her it felt as though he was putting a spell on me, telling me that I was like her, a talented black woman with a heart as big as Wakanda but who would always live to regret not being able to reach her fullest potential. I was like Nina who still thought, three years before her death, that she would have been happier had she achieved her goal of becoming the first black woman concert pianist in the US. She thought she would have been a happier person had she went to the most prestigious music venue in America, Carnegie Hall and been the first black woman to play Bach, Carl Czerny and Liszt.
Despite her enormous success – in her mind, she had been effectively cheated out of her dream when she was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music because of her race. Not only that but music her first love had robbed her of her desire for a life-long companionship in marriage. She still craved the kind of love which would take all of her brilliance in. Not just the fame, influence and potential to make loads of money, but the other side as well; the grieving, lonely, suffering part of her which still held on to all the loves and lives she had lost – the little girl who was still playing Bach in music halls across the world, not just My Baby Just Cares For Me or I loves you Porgy.
And yet the lady doth protest too much.
Indeed there is some element of truth in his comparison. Perhaps not in my level of talent nor in my activism which has been minute, to say the least. Perhaps we are similar in that we are both, Nina Simone and I, collectors of a vast array of human emotions through space and time. Hers found expression in her music and activism while mine… well that’s a story for another day.
In many ways I am like her, I hate being pigeonholed and I often find that I do have to “constantly re-identify myself to myself, reactivate my own standards, my own convictions about what I’m doing and why.” I am sold out to freedom.
Last night as I sat up reflecting on my life so far and what’s next – I thought of Nina Simone – who taught me so much about my own life by fully living hers. Even though I hate to admit, we are more alike than different.
So as I made peace with her, with the fact that just as she knew the contents of my heart without looking in, I could see her tears without her shedding any. As I accepted parts of her I was uncomfortable with, afraid of even, I remembered that there is someone who once loved Nina Simone as much as I did. He was able to show me another kinder and gentler side to her.
Many moons ago, my father sang a Nina Simone song for me after I informed him of my discovery of her music. I was all caught up in my feelings about the strange fruit in Mississippi Goddamn while trying not be a misunderstood blackbird wishing it knew how it would feel to be free when he interrupted me with a smooth rendition of, “to be young gifted and black oh what a lovely precious dream, to be young gifted and black open your heart to what I mean…” A song Simone named after an unfinished play by her friend Lorraine Hansberry, who was the first black writer to have a hit Broadway show. I was impressed by him, he sang it until I started to feel, Good.
I began to understand a little about what love is. My father is able to find me, wherever I am, in whatever language and cultural iconographies I may have adopted in my explorations of what this world has to offer. It’s incredible to know that I am a recipient of such an immense well of unconditional love and freedom. Through this song, my father showed me a side of Nina Simone which I was unaware of, which helped me understand her humaneness, her fragility. This song allowed me to embrace all of her. Embrace her completely and unconditionally. She was visionary, a warrior who loved in extraordinary ways. Finally, my father helped me to accept myself, through Nina’s music.
The fact that we can we can look around today whether we are in Africa or in the diaspora in Parliaments or the classroom, from the streets corners to the worlds’ stages – from top to bottom, east to west, the fact that we can look at the world around us today and be genuinely proud to say that despite everything we still need to do -“to be young, gifted and black, it’s where it’s at!!! – is because of Nina Simone, my father and generations of black people who saw a future beyond the pain.
Carnegie Hall and the Curtis School of Music could not contain Nina Simone. And that’s a fact!
Click here to listen to the song.