Black Swans … On Nina Simone’s elegant belligerence

Black Music and Black Muses

February 27, 2023

by Harmony Holiday

There’s a thrashing quality to Nina Simone’s virtuosity— It extends beyond her sensibility almost violently, in sudden bursts and languid retreats. Her tonal palate is where vulnerability and vengeance meet and stare one another down until either sentiment cracks and unburdens the other. She wanted to be a concert pianist and ended up a diva, having always been divine this was inevitable and inevitably destructive. She deserved every pedestal but they tested her balance, turning her into a spiritual resource for her audience and forcing her to neglect herself at times to live up to that. Then pathologizing her for that very restless bottomless spectacle of generosity. She was obstinate and delicate at the same time and seemed to always and never get her way. She mastered devastations’s hymn and devastation’s exuberance. Her singing ranged from limber flutter, to the blunted acridity of moaning to gain momentum for a scream that never comes. So that a lyric like love me, love me, love me, say you do in her universe, eradicates whomever she addresses. Her delivery of the plea is so stark and poignant that the listener becomes an accomplice in any sorrow she feels toward the romance she is denied and chasing. Nina possessed this kind of divinity, that feminine form which people only know how to love insomuch as they fear and deny the power and pain bound up in its majestic tenderness. 

She retaliated with belligerence, becoming a protest singer whose lyrical tirades like “Mississippi, Goddamn!” she once blamed for ‘ruining her career.’ And in a listless tone that let everyone know she wouldn’t have had it any other way. She surrendered to the ruins and they heralded her, their hero and arbiter. There are moments during live performances that have become as popular as her music, ruined moments, stolen moments. The most glorious moments in recorded music are these casual and intense asides that invade the bleak decorum of a routine with suspense and intuitive fire. The most famous among these scenes in Nina’s career, is her invective in between takes on the song “Feelings” when she gasps I cannot believe that conditions that produced a situation that demanded a song like this. And she’s not wrong. Her honesty is jarring and so candid it might stammer into the listener’s heart in a delayed fashion, but when it does make its impact, it’s impossible not to hear her rendition of the line trying to forget my feelings of love as the blues driven horror it is. Love exiled from itself into the oblivion it came from, back into the ruins to gather that unforgettable amnesia called survival. She sings of situations that give anyone the blues and send anyone on the road as a drifter with a song seared into their spirit until there’s a new feeling to memorize and relate and then abdicate, or lose on purpose in pursuit of  a new blues. 

But it’s the time Nina promises a reporter, in blunt, lighthearted emphatics If I’d had my way, I’d have been a killer, that I find the most captivating and epiphanic of all of her transient notes. She’s eating with her hands during the interview, stunningly alert, she continues, I was never a nonviolent person. The deliberate confessional of the phrase if I’d had my way is what strikes deepest. It’s an admission that she was curtailed, redirected, sent on someone else’s way, perhaps saved by the detour, but perhaps she would have been safer if she’d had her way. As Baraka put it in his play Dutchman Charlie Parker wouldn’t have played one note, not a single note, if he’d have just killed the fist ten white people he saw. Is it true? The playing ultimately cannibalized him, maybe because of the crimes he hesitated to commit. Is it true?! I’m interrogating all of history now. Black music itself is on trial for docility, rage, and being too civilized to save us.

Perhaps Nina would have sabotaged herself if she’d had her way, and wound up a casualty of thrill and rage, or a stiff classicist with no protest songs to ruin her career. We cannot predict the hypotheticals of the past, but there’s a version of Nina Simone that’s a sniper and one that’s a singer and they merge when she admits what might have been. The fantasy that indignation has a happy ending or is safer than fame surfaces in the admission’s tonal window and we have to wonder who the hypocrites are that keep infamy at bay for so long even the ruins reject them. Nina’s outburst becomes a manifesto and warning forcing me to ask myself, am I having my way? Am I playing compensating notes? If I’m not having my way, what is my way. What method will I be raving about in forty years? If I had my way what would I have done differently. Would I have been a killer? I try and ask the dead if I already am. 

Since I’ve stopped fetishizing revolution, because when people today say they want revolution they often mean it only in the sense that they don’t really want their way, they are insincere and domesticated into crying revolt for hire, crisis actors. Those who are sincere tend to be sacrificed and made into martyrs and cautionary tales. To me that is more deranged than wanting things to remain exactly as they are. But since I lost my scapegoat—the habit of yearning for conditions I might not really want— the main retribution is detour toward an adventure that gives me time to call my own bluff. I found out all the places where my dejection should have been disdain or indifference, and all the places where exuberance should have replaced panic or urgency, and I’m living as if I knew all along. The way Nina Simone’s body of work becomes an aggregate of her most off-script pronouncements for me, because they feel like secrets, dirty and perfect, so too my way is becoming everything I sneak off in the night to announce into the space where taboos are valued and adored. Performing struggle is so dangerous that we can no longer have our way when this is our way, and the war is over too, turned limp and disabused now that we are aware of this. I’d have been a killer too, in the way I could turn away from what I thought I wanted until it was forced to disappear or change with me. A lot of liars are jealous of the kind of honesty that says: I could have been evil but I chose the indignant glamor of withholding. Now I have my blues.  Now I play them for you.

*Nina Simone would have been 90 on the 21st of this month. She died on my birthday. I saw her live once in Los Angeles at the open air Greek Theater. It was perfect. A hot August day and she sang Porgy at the pink sunset. She brought out her brother Sam Waymon who I later learned made the soundtrack for my favorite film Ganja and Hess. It’s a story about a woman who gets her way. If I’d had my way that show would have lasted years, an eternity. You can see why Nina was enraged. We took everything she had to give, kept requesting encores of the memorized lyrics, and left her with her premonitions about the past until she had her way. 

Black Music and Black Muses is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

Comments are closed.

Powered by

Up ↑