"To be young, gifted, and". . . Simone!
By Mumia Abu-Jamal from death row
"...Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought."
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), 'To a Skylark'
When the historical record of the Twentieth Century is finally
written, a special chapter will have to be penned about the
remarkable and talented singer, who was called Nina Simone
In any true history, words, no matter how skillfully crafted, or
masterfully molded, will fail to capture the brilliance of the woman.
Some recording must be appendixed, so that the student will be
blessed to hear her thrilling contralto, dark, full, rich as earth in
the promise of spring.
Also required, will be a collection of her lyrics, so that no one
may miss the words that she dared set to music and bring to life,
with a fury, a passion, and sheer artistic courage that continue to
dazzle years, decades even, after their creation.
She was an Artist (with a capital 'A') in every sense of the word,
but she was far more than that term now suggests. She was proud,
imperial, majestic and deliciously arrogant as say, the late jazz
great Miles Davis was, in his prime.
The writer remembers her appearing in the late 1970s, in an outdoor,
mid-day concert at the Bell Tower at Temple University. She looked
out at the crowd with nervous irritation, not fear driven by the
uncertainty of her performance, but a barely suppressed anger that
there were only hundreds of people gathered to hear her, not
She sang songs with bite, and grit, and pride and longing... and
rage. Deep, down, boneset rage, at how cheaply life was lived for
Africans in America. Her "Mississippi Goddamn" was an anthem that
stirred, not merely the Civil Rights Movement, but also the Black
Liberation Movement: "You don't have to live next to me, just give me
my equality!", she demanded. Her songs could also be tender, loving
odes to the multiflavored beauty and spirits of Black women, as in
her signature "Four Women", which spoke of the various moods and hues
of her sisters.
Decades before Erykah Badu would wear the head wrap Simone did so,
and walked as regally as the Nubian princess that she became.
Although she was born in the Jim Crow South, the apartheid way of
quiet acceptance was never hers, and she spoke out boldly, in her
art, and in her interviews, against the injustices suffered by her
When the Nixon-era began, she bid her homeland adieu, and like a
generation of other brilliant Black Americans (like the writer,
Richard Wright) who could not abide the nastiness, meanness, and
racial indignities of the time, she migrated to live with dignity in
Some reviewers have pronounced her career essentially over when she
left the U.S. during the '70s, never to rise again.
But great artists, like great music, have a habit of resurrection.
In the early '90s, an American film emerged that was a borrowing
from the French. Bridget Fonda portrayed an alienated,
drug-addicted, youngster who got caught up in a failed drugstore
robbery, turned killing. She was spirited into a shadowy spy agency
where she worked for the government. The character, when she was
alone, invariably played Nina Simone records in the background to
reflect her moodiness. The film was titled "Point of No Return" (a
U.S. remake of "La Femme Nikita.") A generation of young filmgoers
were thus exposed to the wonder and power of Simone's magnificent
Where are the Simones of this generation? They are there... in the
shadows, perhaps; but they are there.
They are perhaps afraid of giving as much as their recently departed
ancestor. For, even they know that she sacrificed a good deal to
sing the songs that moved her great heart. Such a prospect is no
Yet, one wonders, who among the madding throng will be remembered,
not to mentioned revered 30 years from now? How much of what is
produced now furrows its way into the heart, or rings the deep bell
of recognition in the soul? Who will sing of the wonder, the terror,
the beauty, and the madness of Black life in this new century?
Copyright 2003 Mumia Abu-Jamal
Mumia Abu-Jamal is the author of three books: 'Live
from Death Row', 'Death Blossoms', and 'All Things
Write to Mumia directly at:
Mumia Abu-Jamal AM 8335
175 Progress Drive
Waynesburg, PA 15370