Working Through Nina To Get To Simone
(Disclaimer: This is going to be long though hopefully not longwinded. Just want to warn at the outset that you might want to continue reading when you have a moment; perhaps with a cup of coffee, perhaps a glass of wine. Also, the opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of the family and Estate of Nina Simone as a whole, they are mine and mine alone – I’m just lucky enough to have this platform from which to share my opinions.)
After one’s passing or, as Nina’s daughter Simone eloquently calls it, one’s transition, life becomes less about those whom have passed and more so about those who remain. Though we have all been brought here by a love for all things Nina Simone, it is her daughter (and in the future her granddaughter) who is now charged with keeping the flame, continuing the legacy, all while blazing her own path. And, all the while, carrying her mother close in her heart, deep within her spirit and echoed in her memory. On this day, while it is important to acknowledge, honor and commemorate the genius, music, life and legacy of Nina Simone it is just as important to even for a second, even if just for today, try to understand her daughter, Simone.
Just for a second, try and imagine what it would be like to be the daughter of Nina Simone. Seriously…the child of Nina Simone. Just imagine.
Our imaginations probably go immediately to the Nina we all loved so dearly: that passion, that genius, that raw power, that voice. Oh god, that voice.
But, we’re all adults. Even if we don’t know much about Nina on a personal level, even if we haven’t heard the stories (and if you’re here reading this, I’m sure you’re familiar enough to have heard some), we’re all adults and we know that genius and notoriety come with a price. While the artist, the genius, often suffers as the price of simply being a genius, it is often – dare we say always – those in the genius’ life who bear all the costs.
So, again, I implore you to imagine, just for a second, what it would be like to be the daughter of Nina Simone – the genius and the human.
The first time I met Simone was at her mother’s memorial service in Harlem. Though the memorial featured numerous speakers of such brilliance that I doubt I’ll ever witness so many in one place at the same time, only one of their eulogies sticks out in my head. She spoke from such a personal place – not a place of admiration and friendship but a place of anguish, loss and self-discovery. She spoke from a place of a girl who was now, beyond any doubt, a woman. So many of us remain boys until our fathers pass, so many of us remain girls until our mothers pass. Here was Simone, standing before us, a woman.
One of the things she mentioned during her eulogy was how she’d been standing the night before on the streets of New York (in the rain, mind you) handing out invitations to the memorial service to every black person she could see. Simone was crushed by the number of her people who had never even heard of her mother. They’d never even heard of Nina Simone. Never heard of her.
Immediately, as a white person, my mind picked up on Simone saying she’d tried handing them out to all the black people she saw and I thought “wait a minute…” But, deep down I knew. I knew not only what it meant because I’ve experienced years of being the white person conversing with a black person who’d never heard of Nina Simone but I also knew that it wasn’t my place to question Simone’s actions. Despite my initial reaction I knew that such a judgment about why she would or would not think to give invitations to non-blacks would only come from a place of privilege, the place of an outsider. Though my mind picked up on it, understandably so, it wasn’t my place to question it or judge it, so I left it at that.
After the service, Simone remained at the front of the church to greet attendees and thank them for coming to honor her mother. Suffice it to say the attendance was not what I would’ve hoped or wished. But, at times like those, you can’t let that matter to you. You just keep going on, doing what you’d come to do in the first place.
I hesitantly went to the front of the church, uncharacteristically shy. I think my friends even had to push me a little. I approached Simone, already shaking and nervous, and gave her a book. I gave her a book featured in a picture of her and her mother from when Simone was a little girl. In it, Nina appears to be reading the book to Simone. I was able to track down the book, bought it, placed the picture inside and brought it as a gift for Simone.
By the time I started actually speaking I was already in tears and I’m sure Simone had no idea what I was saying. I was trying to tell her that I’d brought her the book and that it was from my favorite picture of her and her mother. She looked down at the cover and immediately she knew what it was. Her face lit up. I tried to express how much her mother meant to me, how deeply her music had touched me, how she had changed me as a person but, again, I’m sure through my efforts to hold back my tears I was probably just blubbering.
In that second Simone said something that to this day has been burned into my psyche. It was a moment of clarity, a moment of truth, a moment of unadulterated honesty, even if unintentional. She said that she was wrong, she shouldn’t have just been trying to pass out invitations to her people; she should’ve been giving them to everyone. Given the moment, the occasion, the tenor – it was an incredibly insightful thing for her to say. For it to even dawn on her and make the connection, through her own pain from having lost her mother. To recognize her own limitations, her own faults, if you will. To be able to change openly when in the face of truth. THAT is the sign of genius. THAT is the sign of realness. THAT is Nina Simone’s daughter.
The next conversation I had with Simone was one-on-one in Nina’s hometown of Tryon, NC. I’d driven cross-country with my son to visit my parents and made a detour in Tryon to visit with Crys Armbrust whom was heading the efforts in Tryon to memorialize Nina. This was being done through the Nina Simone Project in different ways such as building a statue and renovating Nina’s childhood home. It just so happened that Simone was going to be in Tryon at the same time so everything just kind of came together.
Immediately following Nina’s death, in 2003, I started a Nina Simone tribute and archival website called L’hommage: Nina Simone. I started this because at the time, and this is no exaggeration, there was nothing out on the internet about Nina. Nothing. Even the official website at the time was painfully bare and neglected. I decided that I not only wanted to honor Nina but to provide information, gather as much material as possible, provide a source for reference and access to Nina. I fantasized about creating a virtual, online Nina Simone Museum.
It reached a point where one would’ve thought L’hommage: Nina Simone was the official Nina website because it had become (with the immense help of others…mainly Roger Nupie – International Nina Simone Fan Club President – and even Simone’s input at times) the most content rich site regarding all things Nina. Having caught Simone’s attention and receiving the seal of approval from those in the innermost reaches of the Nina Simone circle (Simonians, as Roger Nupie referred to them), I was lucky enough to receive this one-on-one time with Simone and, to his delight, my teenage son.
It was during this meeting that Simone said to me the second thing that to this day has haunted me and one that I carry with me as a source of inspiration, motivation and frustration.
I think Simone’s energy was drained that day. She mentioned having an allergic reaction to something in particular and I think overall her allergies were bothering her as well. My son was having a horrible time with his allergies and I think Crys thought my son was sick so had tried to innocently warn Simone because she was meant to perform and could not risk being exposed to anything that could make her sick. I assured Crys that my son just had allergies and Simone immediately, out of empathy because of her own severe allergies, embraced my son and went out of her way to let him know that she didn’t give a damn about catching anything from him. She had allergies. She knew how they felt. She was with him on that one.
I mention that I think Simone’s energy was somewhat drained because I think her guard was down. I think most of us put our guard down when we’re drained, tired, sick, anything of the sort. And from the conversation that transpired between the two of us I think I got a true glimpse of the pain, torment and anguish Simone had been through and that she’d begun working to heal. It struck me deeply and I was thankful to have received the gift of witnessing it.
In my awestruck enthusiasm and excitement, having been surrounded all day by Nina’s childhood hometown and all the efforts taking place to solidify and nurture her legacy, I think I started going on about how wonderful it was to see everything that was happening. By then I’d been working on my own site for several years so I knew that Nina had been largely ignored for far too long so it warmed my heart to see the world slowly waking to Nina’s genius yet again.
Simone’s response to this woke me and grounded me:
“My mother died alone. Absolutely alone.” The pain and anger in Simone’s voice and eyes was heavy and palpable.
Though in no way was Simone (or is she) ungrateful for all the combined efforts throughout the U.S. and world to honor and celebrate her mother but the history can’t be ignored and the fact can’t be brushed aside: Nina Simone died alone, forgotten, brushed aside, abandoned.
Imagine that for a second, now. The Nina Simone that all of us are here to express our unwavering love for…that Nina Simone, she died alone. She died feeling unloved, unappreciated, unwanted. And this is not exaggeration or hyperbole. Nina’s bitterness is well-known but not surprisingly the valid reasons for her bitterness are not so widely acknowledged.
And – what’s sad – so extremely goddamn sad, so sad it can bring tears to the eyes just by writing about it: NINA TOLD US THIS ALL ALONG.
Just go back, read interviews with her. Watch videos of her. Listen to her. Nina Simone told us all – every chance she got for years and years and years – she was alone, she was being abused, she was being taken advantage of, she wasn’t getting her just dues, she was being robbed. She was left poor and alone.
We must’ve thought she was crazy, right? Or we must’ve thought she was being greedy, right? Or we must’ve thought there was some misunderstanding, right? It was just a management problem, or a crappy contract, or she was bad with money. Or we must’ve just believed she was this talented but difficult diva of a black woman who thought she was worth and entitled to more than she really, truly was because if she were worth all that then…she’d just have it. They would’ve just given it to her, right? They would’ve just signed over all those big fat checks she was entitled to because of how much money all her wonderful, famous music made them.
Right…because that’s how the world works. Right.
So yes, Nina Simone died alone. Unloved, unappreciated, unwanted. And it absolutely breaks my heart.
And not just alone physically or financially. More than that, even her passion wasn’t being reciprocated.
A lot of people refer to Nina’s performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976 as being very powerful – and not just the songs but the things that she says. What she was saying was that no one was listening. Everyone was acting like corpses. To her, it was like playing for a bunch of dead people. Even Janis Joplin, she said, played for dead people too often. Maybe that’s what killed Janis, Nina supposed. Maybe artists die on the inside little by little every time they play for an audience that won’t just come alive. It’s as if we all essentially starved her to death. Watch her. Listen to her: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mH5ZE3N8cxU
“Where were they then?” Simone asked that day in Tryon. Where was the statue when her mother was alive? Where were the concerts in her honor back then? Where were the accolades, the tributes, the testimonies of gratitude? “Where were they then?”
This is not a punitive question. The family and Estate of Nina Simone are never going to push away or reject what they know Nina deserved and deserves. But it is important to imagine just one more thing. Just for one more second, and then we can go back to our lives…
Imagine if Nina had gotten all that love while she was still alive. Imagine if we had all taken the effort to let her know when it was still possible what she meant to us, how she affected us, how much we needed her, how she truly was our High Priestess and how we heard her. Yes Nina, we heard you.
I would’ve just loved to see the look on her face. The joy. The overwhelming feeling of love we could’ve given her just by reflecting back to her what she’d given all of us. End some of her pain, some of her bitterness, some of her illness. Just by giving her some love.
I was just as guilty. I didn’t start my website until right after Nina had died. It never even dawned on me…until she was gone. Until it was too late. Until it could only mean something to those who remained.
All we can do is carry on, move along going forward, staying true and real to what is right and what is meaningful. I could work every day all day on building the legacy of Nina Simone and be perfectly content. It wouldn’t even feel like a job to me. I’d consider it payment on a debt I owe Nina for everything she gave to me…though it can never be repaid.
Simone eventually brought me into the fold to manage the Official Nina Simone website, which is now far from neglected and bare. Hopefully one day it will be the Nina Simone museum of which I’ve always dreamed. I’m enterally grateful to Simone for allowing me the opportunity. It is humbling. (Simone sometimes calls me ‘brother’ and I must say, even if she’d only called me that one single time, to be called ‘brother’ by Simone is something that will stick with me for the rest of my worldly and otherworldly lives. I’m taking that one with me on my transition.)
Considering that all we can do is carry on and go forward we must try to do it without repeating history. Simone closed her commemoration to her mother today with advice about not neglecting the relationships you have with your loved ones because life can end before you know it and then you’re just left with regret. The simple truth of that can’t be overstated and it rings through the words of wise women and men throughout the ages.
We must do what we can right now to honor those we love and express upmost gratitude to those whose passions nourish our souls. Even if we have to prove it to them. We must tell them:
Thank you. We love you. We hear you. You’ve changed us.
And not as just a sea of screaming fans but by proving it to them, showing them. One by one. Reflecting it back to them. Through actions.
Through Nina Simone’s genius and art itself we can pay her back. We can all pay her back. We can pay Nina back by ensuring the world remembers her; by spreading her message, by reflecting her passion and contentiousness, by having our roots in her art. Acknowledging who came before us; on whose shoulders we stand.
We can pay her back by holding her up as an example for young artists to see that you don’t have to be a performing prop of an entertainer who’s trained to use any old trick in the book from crazy outfits, wigs, hair, makeup, sex, drugs and mindlessly provocative lyrics just to gain fame and fortune.
We can teach future generations that they can have class, they can have elegance, they can have style, they can have passion, they can have grit, they can have naked rawness, they can even be provocative…they can have all these things but still have something so many of the most popular artists today are lacking: the sophistication of responsible integrity.
Nina won’t directly hear our praises, she can’t physically feel our love, she doesn’t know we miss her. But those who remain and are carrying her torch can. And they’re listening, they’re watching, they’re paying attention. They remember. After all, wouldn’t you remember if it were your mother? Wouldn’t you pay attention if it were your mother?
If it were your mother, how would you want her legacy to be honored?
And, remember, we’re not just talking about any ol mother, we’re talking about Nina Simone.
Content Manager, NinaSimone.com