Nina Simone: 'Are you ready to burn buildings?'
One of Simone’s most powerful concerts, captured on the ’Nuff Said! album, took place at Westbury Music Fair on 7 April 1968, three days after Dr King was shot dead. She grieved on a brand-new song called Why? (The King of Love Is Dead), then raged on a white-knuckle version of Mississippi Goddam. “The king of love is dead,” she said. “I ain’t ‘bout to be nonviolent, honey!”
Simone was now less a musician who cared about politics than an activist who sang. Her music was by, about and for black people. She would scan the crowd for black faces and tell them, “I’m singing only to you. I don’t care about the others.” White fans, she said, were “accidental and incidental”. She could not ignore the fact “that I was a black-skinned woman in a country where you could be killed because of that one fact.” No wonder there has been controversy over the casting of beautiful, light-skinned Zoe Saldana in the long-delayed biopic Nina.
Although she was outwardly still engaged, Simone claimed she lost faith in activism in 1970, when the movement fractured and the revolution didn’t come. “Optimists talked about the advances we had made, but all I saw were lost opportunities,” she wrote. Some of that energy was redirected into a new kind of music. Simone lived on stage and didn’t care much for albums. Leftover songs from the 1971 RCA sessions that produced the Here Comes the Sun album were later cut-and-shut with live recordings, often overdubbed with applause to conceal the joins. No longer writing, she expressed a potent personal vision entirely through diverse cover versions. There is nothing to connect the slow-burning soul of Steppenwolf’s The Pusher, the polyrythmic frenzy of Ike and Tina Turner’s Funkier Than a Mosquito Tweeter and the desolate, barely-there jazz-folk of Fairport Convention’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes? except Simone’s formidable conviction.
During an antiwar show at Fort Dix, New Jersey in November 1971, she fused George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and David Nelson’s poem Today Is a Killer into a jawdropping gospel rollercoaster that concluded with a blasphemous cry of: “Who are you, Lord? You are a killer!” Included on Emergency Ward! (1972), My Sweet Lord made good on her promise “to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I performed I just want them to be in pieces.” Sick of America, on the ominously titled It Is Finished (1974) she explored African percussion, sitars and the strange, chilling visions of the maverick Bahamian musician Exuma.
These albums sold poorly and didn’t even rate a mention in her memoir, but they leave you salivating at the thought of what she might have done next had she not abandoned activism, the music industry (“the dirtiest and most immoral business in the world”) and the “United Snakes of America” to spend two years in exile in Liberia.
When Simone returned to the stage, all the solidarity and hope of the movement had been burned away, leaving only rage and resentment that was intensified by her illness. Garbus’s film shows her hostile, imperious comeback show at the 1976 Montreux Jazz festival but not the time she told an audience at the music industry conference Midem, “You are all crooks!”, nor the calamity in Pamplona where she told the crowd: “I don’t sing for bastards. I don’t like white people.” She didn’t just rock the boat; she tried to sink it. [Read More]