Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Nina Simone: The Intensity of Beginning

Reading the artistic contributions of  Nina Simone through Frantz Fanon

by Fezokuhle Mthonti

But the constancy of my love had been forgotten. I defined myself as an absolute intensity of beginning. So I took up my negritude, and with tears in my eyes I put its machinery together again. What had been broken to pieces was rebuilt, reconstructed by the intuitive lianas of my hands.

After Fanon, African criticism cannot feign ignorance of history. But neither can they plead captivity to its consequences. Fanon is our pathfinder in that ‘conversation of discovery’ whose mission is to gather the voices of history and common dreams into the work of the critical imagination.
(Sekyi-Otu, 2003:14)

Stacked to the side of an old, rustic-looking glass and wooden cabinet is large pile of vinyl records. Positioned in the corner of our open plan dining room, is this cabinet and therein sits my mother’s prized gramophone. Each Sunday, as the pot roast was thickening in flavour and the vegetables; coming alive to the steam of my mother’s Hart pot was the scratching of the gramophone pin as it moved from song to song. The room already scented with the smells of simmering rice and curried meat would be transformed by the raw quaver and deep register of Nina Simone.

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could I say all the things that I should say   
Say ‘em loud, say ‘em clear
For the whole wide to hear
(The Lyrics of I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free: 1967)

As Bill Taylor’s lyrics reverberated through the house in Simone’s melancholic plea for freedom , a shift would occur in my then very young political consciousness.

 “The explosion will not happen today. It is too soon…or too late” (1967:1).

These words  propel one into the multiple postcolonial dramas that Frantz Fanon unveils to the reader as they move from one devastating line to the next in his 1952 book Black Skin, White Mask. The opening gambit of this book is a dramatic entry into a consciousness searching for self within the postcolonial malaise. It is a consciousness launching its presence upwards and forwards, hoping to access the universal.

 Upon finishing Fanon’s Black Skin White Mask, I recognised that a similar shift had taken place in me. I had yet again, encountered a stirring consciousness. A subject who had dared to wonder about what the possibility of freedom might look like in the post colony.  There is a great deal of confluence in the work of Nina Simone and that of Frantz Fanon. In the following paper, I would like to explore these seemingly disparate figures and tie them to a single project of emancipatory politics. I would like to place Nina Simone in conversation with Frantz Fanon.

In order to do that however, I think that we might need to think about ways in which we can theorise about an emancipatory humanism. That being said, it is important to recognise that “humanists know that no knowledge can ever be claimed as final and definitive, and therefore no ‘ism’ is going to yield final answers and bring heaven to earth”(Praeg, 2011:xxiv). It is important to consistently cultivate new and alternative spaces in which we can reconsider our previously held assumptions about politics and the sites in which political work and political thought can and should be recognised. I would suggest that a new kind of critical imagination needs to be developed wherein creativity -and the kinds of conception of self and the world which become available within that creative process - are seen to be instrumental in our conception of freedom and emancipatory thought and politics.

Perhaps it might be useful to think about the techniques one uses when theorizing. In a paper entitled Crafting Epicentres of Agency, feminist writer and scholar Pumla Gqola employs a mode of critique which she refers to as a kind of ‘creative theorisation.’ She argues that her “technique is motivated, firstly by [her] conviction that creative space offer an ability to theorise, and imagine spaces of freedom in ways unavailable to genres more preoccupied with linearity and exactness”(2008:50). In placing the songs and words of jazz singer and Civil Rights Activist, Nina Simone in conversation with the work of Frantz Fanon, I too hope to open up ‘the series and forms of conjecture’ and produce ‘new speculative possibilities’ in the ways in which we approach emancipatory thinking. Further to that, I hope to make clear that political work and thought as well as “theoretical or epistemological projects do not only happen in those sites officially designated as such, but emerge  from other creatively textured sites outside of these”(2008:50).

More to that, I would contend that through theorising about the works of the imagination, we are then able to create possibilities wherein we can re-learn how to collectively embrace critical thinking. In her book entitled A Renegade Called Simphiwe, Gqola argues that “this is akin to what Barbara Boswell calls creative re-envisioning when she writes about Black South African women artists in genre. Boswell defines this creative inclination as the ability to re-envision or re-imagine what is possible to achieve in our lifetime” (2013:144). 

I would also propose that this alternative method of theorisation can also generate new ways to read and re-read elements of Fanonian texts as well as Fanonian praxis. Effectively, in the following discussion I hope to make visible and bring closer the new world that Nina Simone’s deep timbre pronounces into existence when she sings her 1971 hit  New World Coming off of the Here Comes the Sun album:

There's a new world coming
And it's just around the bend
There's a new world coming
This one's coming to an end

Furthermore, in a book entitled Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience Ato Sekyi-Otu proposes that “we need to read [Fanon’s] texts and scenes within texts dialectically rather than sequentially or as discrete entities” (1996:22). Like Sekyi-Otu, I will be reading the works and the songs of Nina Simone dialectically. I will be thinking through Simone’s oeuvre and the songs therein as being constitutive of the different stages of the cultural and political custodian that Frantz Fanon has referred to as the native intellectual in his chapter On National Culture in his seminal text, The Wretched of the Earth.

Reading Fanon as a dramaturgical text: Linking Notions of Performance and Performativity

I think that it is useful to think about the ways in which Fanon’s work might constitute both a performative and dramaturgical dialectic. In the prologue of Fanon: A Dialectic of Experience, Ato Sekyi-Otu starts to think quite seriously about what might it mean to read Fanon’s work as if it constituted a “dialectical dramatic narrative”(1996:5). He argues that “we shall encounter instances in which seemingly privileged pictures and rhetorics are reviewed, renounced, and replaced in the course of a movement of experience and language of which Fanon is the dramatist, albeit in the role of a passionate participant and interlocutor”(1996:5).

When one reads the varied works of Frantz Fanon in relation to each other, one feels as if they are in the midst of an unfolding event. It is a drama unravelling from one scene to the next- through the intermission of declamatory statements presenting untimely truths and then the quick retractions of a man who continues to consider the existential dramas of the post colony. It is through this consistent ebb and flow of thought that we become witness a to an ongoing performance. In reference to this, Sekyi-Otu suggests that Fanon’s“ work is also unique in the manner in which it marshals empirical detail, poetic language, and a theoretical engagement with major metanarratives of human bondage and freedom to fashion a critical account of colonialism and of the postcolonial condition” (1996:5).

More to that, I would argue that when one reads the work of Fanon, they become witness to the immediacy of presence and an unravelling of truths. Black Skin, White Mask and The Wretched of The Earth were dictated to by Fanon whilst, Josie –the woman who became his wife, transcribed each word. This means that we as the readers, encounter Fanon directly. In the pages of Black Skin, White Mask we encounter a man pacing up and down and gesticulating frantically. While in The Wretched of The Earth, we encounter a man shouting declamatory statements from the coils of his death bed.

This in many ways, was an unorthodox approach to writing. That being said however, this approach does allow for a number of possibilities for this paper in particular. It allows one to not only see the linguistic text that Fanon produced as that which can be dramatized dramaturgically, but it also allows us to view Fanon’s work as being part of a larger  conversation about performance and performativity. Further to that, this process meant there was no mechanisation of ideas. Thoughts and ideas retained the same dynamism and electricity that Fanon had delivered them with. What has been subsequently been compiled into a book is the live recording of an event.   

 “People used to make records,
 as in a record of an event
the event of people playing music in a room” .
 (Ani Di Franco, Lyrics to Fuel:1996)

In my later analysis about the Concert As A Site of Political Renewal, I will discuss how Nina Simone was able to transform her performances into zones of serious political and philosophical contestations. It was within these sites that she was able to create the kind of political event that French scholar and philosopher Alain Badiou theorises about in his book entitled Being and Event. However, in this section of the discussion, I would like to discuss Fanon’s work through a brief theorisation on the notion immediacy and the living event.

Before I can do that however, it may be useful to explain what Badiou’s notion of the event is. In Being and Event Badiou is concerned with how subjects maintain fidelity to what he describes as fundamental truths. Badiou would contend that these moments of truth are not available in the day to day situations of our lives. Through these brief moments of political rupture, Badiou argues that we are able to access truth and experience an event. He argues that “ a truth is solely constituted  by rupturing  with the order which supports it, never as an effect of that order. [He has] named this type of rupture which opens truth ‘the event’”(2006:xxi).

Fanon’s texts can be seen to a series of political events wherein his sentiments in the book offer a kind of political rupture with the colonial orders of his time. Truths avail themselves in this moment of rupture and we see a sustained critique of the malignant systems of colonialism and oppression from Fanon. Given my initial conversation about the immediacy of Fanon’s presence within these books, we see that this notion of event can even be rendered as a “living event.”

 Ian Mackenzie and Robert Porter who have co-authored a paper entitled Dramatization as Method in Political Theory suggest that philosophical work and the establishment of ideas and ideology can come to life through the act of dramatization and performance. In fact they would contend that “the dramatization of concepts is a method that enables access to the dynamic spatio-temporal determinations (the differential relations) that constitute the terrain of the Idea and, furthermore this method requires the creation of difference within the Idea itself in order to capture the dynamics within that terrain(2011:490). That being said, perhaps it might be useful to read Fanon’s works - Black Skin White Mask and The Wretched of the Earth - as that which is alive, mushrooming into performances documenting colonial truths and emancipatory philosophies.

Nina Simone: Performer and Native Intellectual

In the subsequent discussion, I will be addressing the production of political and social histories, particularly in the context of the colony where a regeneration of self, space and place is crucial to an emancipatory politic. I will be looking into how Simone’s role as songstress and performer reconciles the histories that have been eroded over a few hundred years with a humanising cultural praxis.  Further to that, I will be arguing that Nina Simone assumes the role of both performer and ‘native intellectual’ - a role described by Fanon in his discussion On National Culture. In an attempt to define the notion of a’ native intellectual,’ Fanon argues that “inside the political parties, and most often in offshoots from these parties, cultured individuals of the colonised race make their appearance. For those individuals, the demand for a national culture and the affirmation of such a culture represent a special battlefield. While the politicians situate their action in actual present day events, men (sic) of culture take their stand in the field of history”(1967:168). It is on this ‘special battlefield’ of history that I wish to ground the sites of struggle through which Simone navigates through her songs and  performances.

That being said however, I think that it may be useful to chart the three different stages of evolution which native intellectuals and writers go through according to Fanon. I think that there are some significant parallels which characterize Simone’s artistic journey and that of the native intellectual/ writer. Although I have tried to segment Simone’s career into three definitive moments, I am aware of the fact that there is no exact science in one’s artistic trajectory and series of overlaps and disparate phases in between, are likely to occur. “In the first phase” Fanon writes, “the native intellectual gives proof that he (sic) has assimilated the culture of the occupying power. [Their] inspiration is European and we can easily link up these works with definite trends in the literature (music) of the mother country. This is the period of unqualified assimilation” (1967:179) Owing her initial introduction to music to the church, the then Eunice Waymon developed a keen ear for music from a very early age. Author of  I Don’t Trust You Anymore: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960’s,  Ruth Feldstein indicates that “Simone started tapping piano keys when she was three years old and was soon playing hymns and gospel music at her mother’s church. By the time she was five, and as a result of local fundraising efforts on the parts of whites and blacks in her town, she was studying classical music with a white teacher”(2005:1354). Nina Simone, who aspired to be a classical pianist, developed an appreciation for not only listening to, but also playing the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Schubert and Beethoven. Deeply immersed into that which was considered high art, Simone unquestioningly reproduced the musical sensibilities of a racialised civilisation that saw itself as inherently superior  to that of her own. Simone saw herself as an African American classical pianist who was able to not only mimic all the cultural greats of European music and culture , but she was also able to match their talent and their fervour. She, as Fanon would suggest, was ‘assimilated’ in a system that was not entirely her own. This phase accounts for the very early years of Simone’s artistic and political life.

In “the second phase,” Fanon argues, one finds that “the native is disturbed; [they] decide to remember what [they are]…past happenings of the bygone days of his childhood will be brought up out of the depth of [their] memory; old legends will be reinterpreted in the light of a borrowed aestheticism and a conception of the world which was discovered under other skies” (1967:178) This secondary phase of native intellectualism is, for Simone, a phase in which she transitions from classical music and classical piano into the playing and singing of jazz music.  In a documentary entitled Madame Nina Simone: La Legende by Frank Lords, Sam Waymon who was Simone’s eldest brother  says that “she changed her name, she became Nina Simone because she did not want her mother to know that she was playing what she called at the time, the devil’s music”(La Legende Documentary). Nina Simone made a name for herself through the singing and covering of popular jazz hits of the day. This to some extent, can be understood as the ‘reinterpretation of old legends’ which were penned in skies that were separate from her own, as is suggested by Fanon.

 It would be estimation that this stage was first brought into existence when Simone’s first encountered what she perceived to be an act of racism when she was rejected from the prestigious Curtis Institute of Philadelphia. Simone maintains that she was rejected from this institution on the basis of her race. Further to that, Simone says that: “my experience was so first hand and so deep, so intense. The rejection was so was unequivocally wrong that I still haven’t gotten over it yet.” (La Legende:1992) Simone was faced with the challenge of redefining herself. Although she was reticent at first, jazz music became the tool with which Simone used to articulate what she called ‘a black classical sensibility’. She was able to infuse her own idiosyncratic style of performance into the realm of the popular and was thus able to punctuate ‘the old legends’ with her own versions of history.

“Finally, in the third phase , which is called the fighting phase, the native, after having tried to lose himself in the people and with the people, will on the contrary shake the people”(1967:179). Fanon says that “instead of according the people’s lethargy with an honoured place in his esteem, he turns himself into an awakener of the people; hence comes a fighting literature, a revolutionary literature and a national literature”(1967:179). In the following discussion, I will be speaking to Simone’s renewed political consciousness as activist and as Civil Rights performer. In an interview with Frank Lord - director, filmmaker and writer of the previously mentioned documentary entitled Madame Nina Simone: La Legende,  Simone argues that “it was dangerous, we encountered many a people who were after our hides at different times and I was excited by it though because I felt more alive then, than I feel now because I was needed and I could sing something to help my people. And that became the mainstay of my life, that became the most important thing to me. Not classical piano. Not classical music. Not even popular music, but civil rights movement music.”(La Legende Documentary: 1992)

Fanon suggests that “in order to achieve real action, you must yourself be a living part of Africa and her thought; you must be an element of that popular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing, the progress and the happiness of Africa”(1967:166). He continues to say that “there was no place outside of that fight for the artist or the intellectual  who is not himself concerned completely with and completely at one with the people at the great battle of Africa and of suffering humanity”(1967:166). Although Simone was not necessarily stationed in Africa, until much later in life, I would argue that the sentiments remain the same- intellectuals and artists had to be stationed within the realities of their respective struggles first. It was through this intimate understanding of the struggle, that they could then create the kind stories and songs which could inform change within that context. Through her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement in the United States, I would contend that Nina Simone was then able to establish herself as wholly a native intellectual as prescribed by Fanon.

Simone was part of tradition of artistic work which claimed  political resistance and political work against the systemic segregation policies of the United States at the time. Lorraine Hansberry (playwright and activist) and Langston Hughes (poet and activist) formed part of Simone’s core friendships in the sixties. She was part of tradition which knew that it was not enough to simply write a revolutionary song; they knew to fashion the revolution with the people. Having lived through the segregation, prejudice and brutality of the time all these artists were able to produce work collectively that could speak to material circumstances of black in the United States.  To be Young Gifted and Black, a poem which was initially written by Lorraine Hansberry was turned into political anthem by Simone. It was a song that was not only dedicated to those who stood up for justice and equality, but also affirmed them in many ways. As I have indicated before, the song soon became a national anthem for black America and a song that was most synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement.

You are young, gifted and black
We must begin to tell our young
There's a world waiting for you
Yours is the quest that's just begun
When you feel really low
Yeah, there's a great truth that you should know
When you're young, gifted and black
Your soul's intact
-Lyrics of To be Young, Gifted and Black

Fanon contends that “the artist who has decided to illustrate the truths of the nation turns paradoxically towards the past and away from actual events. What he ultimately intends to embrace are in fact the cast-offs of thought, its shells and corpses, a knowledge which has been stabilised once and for all. But the native intellectual who wishes to create an authentic work of art must realize that the truths of a nation are in the first place its realities. He must go on until he has found the seething pot out of which the learning of the future will emerge”(1967:181).

Simone’s songs became a form of protest and a form of resistance. Imbued with all the political histories of the time, Simone and her contemporaries captured some of the anxieties that would colour the concerns of African American communities for years to come. They became in many ways the grounding philosophies of Civil Rights Revolution and The Black Power Movement. These songs sought to make visible the struggles of those that had been maligned by white capital and white domination. Civil Rights activist, Stanley Wise argued that “her music was just more than powerful. It was more than music. It was a philosophy and a belief that despite all of these problems- we will get through this. And not only will we get through it, but we will survive and triumph in this” (La Legende Documentary:1992).

In reference to one of Simone’s other protest songs, Feldstein argues that  Nina Simone “offered one of the many political perspectives that people in and out of movements were developing in the early 1960’s, well beyond the emphasis on interracial activism that predominated among liberal supporters of civil rights”(2005:1350). She goes on to say that “far more than as merely the background soundtrack to the movement, and not simply as a reflection of the pre-existing aspirations of political activists”(2005:1350).

Politicizing the Cultural Canon

In a chapter entitled On National Culture in his seminal text, The Wretched of The Earth Frantz Fanon suggests that:

when we consider the efforts made to carry out the cultural estrangement so characteristic of the colonial epoch, we realize that nothing has been left to chance and that the total result looked for by colonial domination was indeed to convince the natives that colonialism came to lighten their darkness. The effect consciously sought by colonialism was to drive into the natives’ heads the idea that if the settlers were to leave, they would at once fall back into barbarism, degradation and bestiality”(1967:169).

Given the stark ways in which colonialism has augmented some of the social and political histories of the subjects within its colonies, I would argue that there is need to facilitate a kind of political intervention in which the stories of the oppressed are claimed and archived as a form of resistance to the systemic erasure and negation that typified colonial domination. Tied to this act of memory, is a struggle for recognition and an indicator of presence. Leonhard Praeg argues that “there can never be anything naïve about speaking about blackness. For that, the Black-as Fanon would name them/us was always too late. Blacks come to speak of themselves as a struggle” (Praeg, 2013:xix). “Blacks” he continues, “don’t tell the world about lost ancient African civilisations because they are interesting but because every act of recollection is an act of struggle that seeks to make a point. It is a way of asserting blackness, of power asserting itself as memory”(Praeg, 2013:xixi).

That being said I would argue that, Nina Simone’s music is instrumental in archiving the memories which typified black life. More than that, I would argue that through her coverage of an elaborate jazz oeuvre, which was not always concerned with the realities of black life, Simone was able to insert self into a long tradition of storytelling which documented human suffering, pain, love and existence. It would be my contention that when one inhabits a character or a role, they are not only able to present to the audience a living and recognisable account of human experience, but they are also able to position their own presence within that of human experience. Simone often performed to multiracial and multicultural audiences and despite the particularity of being a black woman born in North Carolina, Simone was able to access the universal through the enunciation of the words on her musical sheet. Further to that, I would suggest that Simone was able to bring all the complex idiosyncrasies that coloured her personal  subjectivity into a larger place of common- the bustling concert hall, the vibrant political rally or the smoky jazz club.

This remodelling of history through song and performance is, for me, an attempt to humanize one’s claim to presence within human historiographies and it also an assertion of belonging within those narratives. It is in many ways, a resistance to the positivist lens with which Western scholarship often refracts the real and lived experiences of human beings. Haitian academic and theorist, Michel Rolph Trouillot accounts for this in part by saying that “nineteenth century scholars influenced by positivist views tried to theorize the distinction between historical process and historical knowledge. Indeed, the professionalization of the discipline is partly premised on that distinction: the more distant the sociohistorical process is from its knowledge, the easier the claim to a scientific professionalism” (1995:5).  That being said, I would contend that the performance of one’s own historiographies is an act of reclaiming narratives about oneself, both in the past and in the present. It is an attempt to displace positivist ways of knowledge making and knowledge production and an attempt to activate a range of other ways of being in the world.  “As Hayden White reminds us in his seminal study Metahistory, there are always different ways of making sense of the same story and each telling braids interpretation into the narrative.”(Gqola,2013:138)This interpretation is an act of self-assertion into the narrative and the insertion of black identity into the jazz, popular and classical oeuvre.

Like Simone, Fanon was also able to reimagine history so that it constituted a hopeful present and future for those that had been colonised. Sekyi-Otu argued that Fanon “credit[ed] the imagination of postcolonial humanity with the power to relive the condition of a mind unformed, the capacity to cleanse itself of the detritus of history and to write for itself  fresh destiny on a tabula rasa. Such is the measure of Fanon’s generosity, but also of his tenacious adherence to the principle of hope”(1996:239).

Discovering the Teachings of Fanon in Simone’s Songs and Performances.

In a paper which has been briefly referred to already, entitled I Don’t Trust You Anymore: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960’s,  Ruth Feldstein begins her discussion by recounting the moment which Simone first conceived of Mississippi Goddam which she subsequently referred to as her “first Civil Rights Song”(Simone,1992:89). On September 15, 1963, Nina Simone learned that four young African American girls had been killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama” says Feldstein. She continues to say that  “immediately after hearing about the events in Birmingham however, Simone wrote the song Mississippi Goddam. It came to her in a rush of fury, hatred and determination as she suddenly realised what it was to be black in America in 1963”(Feldstein, 2005:1349).

In Simone’s memoirs which have been documented by Stephen Cleary in a book entitled I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone, Simone admits that “I had it my mind to go out and kill someone, I didn’t know, but someone I could identify as being in the way of my people getting some justice for the first time in three hundred years…the idea of fighting for the rights of my people, killing for them if it came to that, didn’t disturb me too much” (Cleary,1994:89).However, after much discussion, Simone’s husband, Andrew Stroud,  convinced her that she was better suited to writing music as opposed to taking up arms or using violence to settle political scores.

Simone recounts the consistent anxiety that came with being a black person in the United States. In what she calls a ‘show tune for show that has yet to be written’, Simone is not only able to articulate the “zone of nonbeing: an extraordinarily sterile and arid region” which Fanon (1952:2) refers to in the early pages of Black Skin White Mask, but she is also able to root this region of nonbeing of black political life in then Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.  As the tempo rises feverishly, Simone recounts some of her own experiences with black racism and the ways in which black life was, and continues to be, devalued and reified in some ways.

I would contend that the critique rendered by Pakistani born and London based cultural theorist, Ziauddin Sardar in the 2008 foreword of Black Skin White Mask can, in many ways, be substituted for a similar critique of Simone’s Mississippi Goddam. Sardar suggests that although “this is not simply a historic landscape, Black Skin White Mask is a historic text, firmly located in time and place”(Sardar, 2008:vi) This song like Fanon’s seminal text,  is a song which is rooted in both a temporal and spatial context of repression. It is Nina Simone’s attempt to archive the social and political historiographies of black people in the South in 1963. Despite its fairly innocuous tune and its rollicking rhythms, I would suggest that the truth and veracity with which this song is delivered, allows the song to move beyond the confines of Mississippi in 1963. It becomes an important political anthem which in many ways continues to provide it with contemporary political relevance all over the world even today. In the foreword of Black Skin White Mask, Sardar continues to say that “Fanon’s anger has a strong contemporary echo. It is still the silent scream of all those who toil in abject poverty simply to exist in the hinterlands and conurbations of Africa…this anger is not a spontaneous phenomenon. It is no gut reaction, or some recently discovered passion for justice. Rather, it is an anger borne out of grinding experience, painfully long self-analysis, and even longer thought and reflection”(Sardar, 2008:vii). I would argue that a similar claim can be made for Simone’s Mississippi Goddam.

The image of Simone’s slender limbs, banging out the chords on her piano, almost hollering instead of singing seem to typify what Sardar has called a “soul in turmoil.”(2008:xi) Simone attempts to displace the lies which have been touted by the rhetoric of a supposedly all-encompassing ‘American Dream.’ I would argue that she speaks (or sings, rather) truth to power as she recounts the very real and lived horrors of black men and women in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. As she sings about the ‘hound dogs that are on her trail, the school children that sit in jail and the black cat across her path’- there is a very real and anxious indication from Simone her that this day may be her last. Further to that these lyrics indicate the tragic circumstances which colour black in the United States.

In a performance of [1]Mississippi Goddam in Holland in 1965, Simone’s anger and frustration is palpable. Her body, rocking to and fro, steadied only by her hands playing syncopated rhythms on the piano and her head, jerking involuntarily, exposing a bloated jugular vein- seem ill at ease with the very many ways in which black life is seen to be “the result of aberrations of affect [and is] rooted at the core of a universe from which it must be extricated”(Fanon,1952:2). There are two conversations  which Simone seems to  be entering into concurrently. The first one is fairly obvious, it is a conversation through lyricism and song about the insurmountable pressures that come with black subjectivity in the South. This signals a linguistic discussion about what Fanon refers to as ‘objecthood’ or reification. The second conversation that is being had here, is one that articulates its claims and presuppositions through the muscle and cartilage which frame her body. This body which is alive and writhing on stage seems to me, like a body which actively seeks to free itself of the confines of its objectivity.

In his chapter on The Fact of Blackness, Fanon speaks to his own experiences of reification:]

I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things. My spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects. Sealed into that crushing objecthood, I turned beseechingly to others. Their attention was liberation, running over my body suddenly abraded into nonbeing, endowing me once more with an agility that I had thought that I had lost, and by taking me out of the world and restoring me to it. But just as I reached the other side, I stumbled, and the movements, the attitudes, the glances of the other fixed me there, in a sense in which a chemical is fixed by a dye. I was indignant; I demanded an explanation. Nothing happened. I burst apart (1952:82).

Fanon continues to explore this Satrean concept of ‘thingification’ through what I will refer to as a ‘dialect of the body’. Embedded in this dialect of body, are the many ways in which black bodies have to construct a ‘physiology of self’ in relation to a world that sees the epidermilisation of blackness as inherently valueless and inferior. When one is embodied in this way, they have no objective way of asserting presence and self beyond the stories which mark the confines of their racialised body. Fanon argues that “the elements that I used had been provided for me not by ‘residual sensations and perceptions primarily of a tactile, vestibular, kinaesthetic and visual character, but by the other, the white man, who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes  [and] stories”(1952:84).

It may be useful to not only place the following Mississippi Goddam verse in conversation with Fanon’s notion of thingification, but it may also be interesting to think about Simone’s 1996 song entitled [2]Four Women.

Can’t you see it?
Can’t you feel it?
It’s all in the airI can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer-Lyrics of Mississippi Goddam

Simone’s song, Four Women is about the lives of four African American women who depict different variations of the epidermilisation of blackness on the spectrum of coloured identity. Each of the four stories document the very unique experiences of these four women. That being said however, the experiences of Aunt Sarah, Sephronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches all seem to be held together by their collective experiences of being embodied in blackness. They in very many ways, reveal the cultural myths that have been projected on the bodies of African Amen women. Sealed into their blackness, these women encounter and are encountered by their world through their epidermilisation.

My Skin is blackMy arms are longMy hair is woolyMy back is strongStrong enough to take the pain inflicted again and againWhat do they call me?My name is AUNT SARAHMy name is aunt Sarah My skin is yellowMy hair is longBetween two worlds, I do belongMy father was rich and whiteHe forced my mother late one nightWhat do they call me
My name is SEPHRONIAMy name is Sephronia
 My Skin is tanMy hair is fineMy hips invite youMy mouth like wineWhose little girl am I?Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me?
My name is SWEET THINGMy name is Sweet ThingMy skin is brownMy manner is toughI’ll kill the first mother I seeMy life has been roughI’m awfully bitter these daysBecause my parents were slavesWhat do they call me?
My name is PEACHES(Simone, Four Women:1996)

In the instance of Peaches and Sweet Thing, Simone seems to speak to the varying ways in which the bodies of these women are reified. Peaches by virtue of being a black female, was co-opted into a system of slavery and servitude. Sweet Thing however, has a different script written on her body. She is seen to be sexually lascivious, available to men as a commodity. Both of these women, as Fanon suggests are found to be objects in the midst of other objects. Super imposed onto their bodies is the intersection of gender and racial oppression. These women embody a sense of non-being. Apart from accounting for their physical features and the ways in which their bodies can be rendered useful, we know very little about these women.  They, like Fanon are in many ways seen to “responsible at the same time for [their] bodies, for their bodies and for [their] race…[they] discovered their blackness, [their] ethnic characteristics; and [they were] battered down by tom toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects [and]slave ships” (1976:84-85).

So when Simone asks her audiences if they can’t see or feel this burdened sense of embodiment , we start to make sense of why she can no longer ‘stand the pressures’ that come with being a  politically  denigrated and assassinated people. Simone who is literally convulsing when she performs Mississippi Goddam, is for me, a body who is in active resistance to the ways in which black bodies have been negated.

Nina Simone’s Concerts: Sites of Political Renewal

In the following discussion, I will be speaking to how Simone was able to construct sites of political and psychological renewal through her performances. Simone was not only able to use allusions to Christianity in order to do this, which I will briefly elaborate upon, but she was also able to create space for collective catharsis. In his chapter on The Negro and Pyschopathology in Black Skin, White Mask, Fanon argues that “in every society, exists - must exist -a channel (sic), an outlet through which the forces accumulated in aggression can be released”(1952:112). I will be focusing primarily on Simone’s role in the Civil Rights Movement and the kinds of performances that she would have done during that period-which for the most part would have been in big school halls and concert venues. I imagine that these halls would have been packed to capacity with a large number of black people who were victim to the segregation laws of the United States. I will suggest that within these spaces, Simone was in fact able to establish a site of collective catharsis. Through singing songs like Mississippi Goddam, Pirate Jenny(1964), To be Young Gifted and Black (1970) as well as I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free(1967), Simone was not only able to tap into the collective suffering that these black communities shared, but was also able to sing songs about the collective hopes for freedom and liberation.

In her brief biography of Simone, Ruth Feldstein says that Eunice Waymon’s mother (Nina Simone’s biological name) was born to a “mother [who] was a housekeeper by day and Methodist minister at night; her father worked mostly as a handyman. Simone started tapping keys when she was three years old and was soon playing hymns and gospel music at her mother’s church”(2005:1354). What is perhaps most useful about Feldstein’s commentary is Simone’s Christian and gospel background. Cultural and musical commentators have often linked Simone’s performance style with that which is   routinely associated with a performativity that presides within the context of the church. Her exposure as a young musician within that context allowed her to be referential of the teachings of the church. Although most of her recorded work was rooted in the swinging notes of jazz, I would argue that Simone- especially in a concert setting, would infuse the chord progressions with her own unique blend of liberation theology.

In a paper entitled Liberation Theology: Its Origins and Early Development, Eddy Muskus cites Peruvian Roman Catholic priest and theologian, Gustavo Gutièrrez definition of liberation theology which is “a theological reflection based on the Gospel and the experiences of men and women committed to the process of liberation in this oppressed and exploited sub-continent of Latin America. It is a theological reflection born of shared experience in the effort to abolish the present unjust situation and to build a different society” (Muskus,2003:30).

Simone was well known for her improvised musical ad libs as well as for her breaks in her musical sets where she delivered long and often informal speeches about the politics of the day. Simone would infuse that which was political with some of the most revolutionary ideas and images within the biblical context. As I have indicated before, I believe that there was a kind of  political education that was at play in these performances. It was the infusion of the sultry sounds of jazz with biblical scriptures, teachings of self-love and intellectual emancipation.  

Given the fact that the Christian Religion operates on one’s activation of faith, it may be useful to understand it as an important imaginative tool. Faith is after all a belief in that which is not yet material or tangible. To some extent, I would contend that scripture becomes most useful when one can transform that which is imagined into a definitive belief system - a way of approaching the world. In many ways religion or the belief in something extraordinary can facilitate the renewal of one’s  mind. In interspersing her songs with biblical imagery, Simone was able to politicize the role of Christianity in the lives of black people. She was able to provide for a situational interpretation of the religion. Simone was also able to locate a higher being into the context of black peoples’ suffering and subsequently think through strategies in which they could overcome their own mental enslavement with the affirmation of that higher being.
In her recorded version of There’s a New World Coming, Simone adds a spoken verse to  Barry Mann and Cynthia Well lyrics where she says: [3]

And then I saw another sign in heaven: great and marvellousSeven Angels having the seven last pledgeFor in them is filled up the wrath of GodAnd I saw it as if it were a sea of glass mingled with fireAnd then they had gotten the victory over the beast
And over his image (…)And over the sound of his nameStand on the sea of glass!Having the harps of God all around them

 This verse is loose reference to the Book of Revelations in the Bible. It can be read as a metaphor in which the oppressed people within America had finally ‘gotten victory over the beast’, that was the white imperial order of the day. As God had filled them up with wrath, these individuals could now rejoice about an impending victory and a New World that was promised to appear just over the bend. In an uncited video that was released by The Nina Simone Foundation, Simone is also seen to be referring to a scripture where she sings’ the bible says; be transformed by the renewing of your mind’. This is a not only a reference to Romans chapter 12 verse 2 but it is also a call to free one’s self of mental slavery.[4]

You know when to push and you know when to not. Nobody can tell you though, you have to feel it. In any situation between human beings. It what makes a groove!-An Excerpt from the documentary entitled Nina: A Historical Perspective (2008)

In speaking to the notion of a concert being a site of catharsis, I would like to partly modify MacKenzie and Porter’s claim that “[performance], even in common parlance is the process by which a  text or a situation is brought  to life such that it effects a change in the emotional state of those involved (say, performers and spectators)”(2011:489). Being the acutely intelligent performer that she was, I would argue that Nina Simone was  not only able to tap in the mood and feelings of her audiences, but she was also able to affect change within them. She was also able  to establish a place of common for her audiences. It was in this place of common that these audience could have had their many frustrations articulated in the slight quaver of her voice. Simone’s voice became symbolic of that which was being collectively felt and thought about within the room. This in many ways, was a sacred space and a site of renewal.

By Way of A Conclusion

I’ll tell you what freedom is to me- no fear. I mean really no fear. …It’s like a new way of seeing!
-An excerpt from an interview of Nina Simone from the documentary Nina: A Historical Perspective (2008)

The works of Nina Simone and Frantz Fanon have been exceptionally important to me. In these works I have been able to articulate the continuous angst that I feel about being embodied in a black body. I have broken down, violently like Fanon at the fact that I was a Negro and the world would encounter me as such. Sealed into my blackness, I have wept at the sight of my wooly hair and all those around me who had their subjectivities erased because of the texture of their hair.  I have also found in Simone and Fanon, a need to be militant about the pervasive social inequalities that characterise this post-apartheid South Africa. Angered by the Manichean cities that pepper the South African topography, I have also needed to shout Goddam!

However that being said, in the works of Simone and Fanon I have also found an unrelenting optimism. I have seen glimpses of the New World that Simone sings about. I have appreciated the gift of being young, gifted and black and I have dared to critique and theorise imaginatively and thus have met Fanon’s challenge to “work out new concepts and try to set afoot a new man”(1967:255).

In closing, having questioned why I have read the artistic contributions of Nina Simone through the teachings of Frantz Fanon, I would argue like Fanon, that “every time a man(sic) has contributed to the victory of the dignity of the spirit, every time a man(sic) has said no to an attempt to subjugate his fellows, [then] I have felt solidarity with his act.”(1952:176)

Reference List:

Badiou.A.2006. Being and Event. New York: Continuum
Brooks. P. 1968. The Empty Space. New York :Touchstone Publishers
Cleary. S.2003. I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone. New York :De Capro Press
Feldstein. R.   I Don’t Trust You Anymore: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960’s. The Journal of American History. Volume 1. (1349-1379)
Fanon. F. 1952. Black Skin, White Mask. Pluto Press: London
Fanon. F. 1965. The Wretched of the Earth. New York. Grove Press
Gqola. P.2013. A Renegade Called Simphiwe. Johannesburg: MFBooks Joburg
Gqola.P.2008. Crafting Epicentres of Agency. Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy. Volume 1 (45-76)
MacKenzie. I and Porter. R. 2011. Dramatization as a Method in Political Theory
Trouillot. M. 1995. Silencing The Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press: New York
 A.Sekyi-Out.1996. Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience. Harvard University Press: Cambridge

·        Nina: A Historical Perspective  (2008)

·        N. Simone. 1971.There’s a New World Coming. Published in the Album- Here Comes The Sun

Accessed on the 24 June 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUFLoKN1y5A

·        Video footage of Simone.N.1965. Mississippi Goddam: Holland

Accessed on  25 June 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVQjGGJVSXc

·        Video footage of F. Woodlands. 1992.A Documentary: Madame Nina Simone. La Legende.

[1] Video footage of :Simone.N.1965. Mississippi Goddam: Holland
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVQjGGJVSXc Accessed on  25 June 2014.
[2]Video footage of:  Simone. N.1996. Four Women: Harlem Cultural Festival.
[3] N. Simone. 1971.There’s a New World Coming. Published in the Album- Here Comes The Sun
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUFLoKN1y5A Accessed on the 24 June 2014
[4] Video footage of Nina Simone in the documentary Nina: A Historical Perspective (2008)