bhm: nina simone wrote her own gospel

February 21, 2019
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Nina Simone was a musical shaman. She created what are now considered powerful institutions — not merely songs — from dirt and things unseen, and made new ways of regarding the American songbook that deepened the possibility of music. Simone breathed into…no, demanded life from Weldon Irvine’s lyrics for “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”, in honor of her dear friend, the iconoclastic writer Lorraine Hansberry. She gutted and sprinkled holy water on Abel Meeropol’s lyrics for “Strange Fruit”, shaping a haunting filled with pain and ancestral presence.  Nina Simone had a specific relationship with words and the voice that was undeniable, but when the words came from her own imagination and were interpreted, I believe that pyramids cracked and the sky cried. Music became more than music, it became gospel.

In 1964, with her all the power of the lightning that surely created her, Simone sang, “Everybody knows about Mississippi goddamn!” With her own pen, ink, piano, and voice, she created a cry of anger and dissonance against the white terrorism that riddled the country — and still does. Even today, “Mississippi Goddam” does not feel like a song but the beginning of a revolution. The rage against oppression is there, but the hope of the onset of change is just as present, giving the song a type of life. Because the hope was so full of rage that it turned into revolutionary action — and both its hope and fire are palpable.

Simone did not only forge fire with her pen, she also created spiritual, erotic gospel. She sings, “Alas, it is done. My soul has been released.” On “Consummation,” Nina Simone is not a singer and songwriter — she is a librettist: an auteur of the spiritual and erotic side of romance and intimate partnership. She illustrates with words, voice, and musical arrangement the journey of soul-searching, and of waiting for your soulmate. Simone moans, “For thousands of years, my soul has roamed the earth in search of you so some day I could give birth to know joy, joy, joy.”

Nina Simone’s genius is not in how she manipulated language and music to create things, but how she demanded more from her creation. She demanded music to be immersive and sensational, erotic and spiritual, emotional and radical. She saw it as something bigger than what can play on the radio, as a possible roadmap to articulate experiences and emotions that are often too abstract, too intense to attempt to talk about — let alone sing. And Nina Simone wrote hymns that suggest there is nothing one can experience on this earth or beyond — including God theyself — that does not deserve its own choir, opera, showtune, or groove. Goddam.