On Nina Simone

November 2018

In “I don’t trust you anymore,” Ruth Feldstein describes Nina Simone as 1) an “artiste engagee” especially in the latter part of her career, beginning with “Mississippi Goddam,” written feverishly in the wake of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., following an early career that some critics referred to as catering to the elite supper-club crowd; 2) as a unique embodiment of the conjuncture in the 1960s including black power activism, canonical (white-approved) civil rights movements and nonviolence, and a blending of music genres between classical, high-brow, sit-quietly-and-listen-earnestly piano and low-brow mass entertainment nightclub-type rabble rousing music (but certainly not, as Feldstein has it, mere background music for the canonical version of U.S. history as incremental progress, including inoffensive civil rights protest songs), and female sexuality; and 3) as a misunderstood and under-recognized figure in part because of her overlapping of so many areas of study (American history, African-American history, music studies, cultural studies). I am partial as a (hard-core) fan of Nina Simone to Feldstein’s argument that more attention should be paid to Simone as an important figure in American cultural history, especially “alternative” or non-mainstream or non-normative history, history from below, or “undercommons” history to borrow from Gayle Wald borrowing from Fred Moten. I buy Simone’s appeal to both popular (uneducated/low social capital) audiences and high-social capital modernist artists and critics (such as the critic who dismisses a black woman jazz musician for being too black/political, leading the poor woman into a decade of obscurity before her next performance), and her authenticity as a black woman who never “sells out” — although this line becomes blurred as she has gained recognition in popular/dominant culture in the past decade or so. I am thinking of her CDs for sale at Starbucks, a biopic that came out recently, and the expanding discography of rap and hip hop artists sampling her work, not only in the US but also overseas, where Nina Simone tracks can be heard in house music sampling in trendy bars and nightclubs from Paris to Ibiza. I am thinking that in this context her music has become completely divorced from its authentic political meanings and has become entirely commodified. If traces of political subversion remain, they serve merely as trendy objects of hipster consumerism (“I like it because it is edgy, it has street cred, etc.”). Her song “Sinnerman” also featured as the closing track for the penultimate David Lynch production, “Inland Empire,” itself a work of art that plays on femininity, identity, and sexuality — as well as appealing to a mixed audience, though more heavily weighted to what Bourdieu would call a higher capital consumer of culture (Lynch is trained in fine arts at Pafa, is steeped in the avant-garde art scene, but also reaches mass appeal, appearing on the cover of Time magazine in the early 1990s, for example). What might be interesting to hear from Feldstein is what to make of these recent commoditizations of Nina Simone, and how this changes her situatedness within American cultural history. We talked about this trajectory of circulation and the aura and where it begins and ends, between production and circulation, and how subcultural products become integrated/coopted by the dominant culture (example: Nike making a campaign out of Colin Kaepernick’s protests for social justice that led to the brouhaha over kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games). Still, Feldstein deftly maneuvers from a background section on Simone’s biography to a close reading of Simone’s album “In Concert,” which is held up as exemplifying the unique intersection in Simone’s work of politics and art, race and gender. The analysis itself makes me think of the limits of empathy, of the concept of readerly or audience identification with the work, its protagonist, narrator, or creator. Along similar lines, and perhaps especially relevant to the case of the black American post-civil rights, Gayle Wald writes in her book “It’s Been Beautiful” about the unknowability of the experience inside the skin of a black American for those on the outside. Wald often cites the producer of “Soul!” Ellis Haizlip as saying that the show was made by and for people who could only themselves understand the experience of being black (and unrepresented, unlistened to on TV) in America. Nina Simone takes a similarly strong independent, borderline antagonistic stance toward her (white) audience, as when Haizlip says he could care less if white people tune in to his show. Simone similarly had a very specific idea of who her listener should be, and was not afraid to stand up during her performances and berate anyone in the audience who did not play by the rules she intended for her performances (Feldstein details examples of this in her piece; such confrontations can also be seen on the recent Nina Simone documentary/biopic which I believe is available on Netflix). Feldstein does this by discussing Simone’s rejection of canonical “We Shall Overcome” style protest songs, or other folk songs about integration and reconciliation. Simone’s work departs from such demonstrations of unity and national cohesion by emphasizing the uniqueness of the American black woman. Her music so powerfully, so genuinely, so beautifully captures the rage, for example in Mississippi Goddam and Pirate Jenny and Four Women, that forecloses any notion of integration or universalism. Instead, Simone along with Haizlip stands for pluralism. Her refusal to go along with any digestible (state-led, Nixon-approved) racial agenda may explain her later isolation and seclusion, which Feldstein captures so achingly by citing obituaries that think of Simone as merely a faded civil rights background singer. This erasure of her memory, I agree with Feldstein, is a travesty. One of the most potent insights in this article is the moment when Simone is seen as making her audience complicit in the tale of the woman who lets herself go along and be taken by a man as a metaphor for the limits of nonresistance. Nevertheless, the question remains as Kenneth Goldsmith said just the other day on Twitter, can art solve real-world problems? Or do real problems need real solutions? Simone seems to be a fascinating embodiment of this tension between art and politics. She also is a nice complement to Wald’s discussion of the tension between entertainment and enlightenment through art in the modern (televisual) era. Arguably, music is able to educate audiences by “hooking” them affectively in a way that is not available to other forms (literature, for example).