Dangerous Minds uploaded a video of Nina Simone performing a rather melancholic number. She kept improving along the performance saying how it was a tragedy that such a song had to exist. The pain of having to create a music piece, a melody, a baby, that had so much blood and tears in it was shining in her big eyes. This was my first introduction to Nina Simone.
I had instantaneously taken to liking that brutal honesty in her demeanour. She looked like a fighter to me, who was fighting all the pain you could see in her eyes, to be able to create art and put it out there to be shared. I had immense respect and love for this woman, whom I had seen only 3 minutes ago.
Pure hearted love was what she commanded out of my heart in the first few minutes of knowing her. Today when I read the stories of the wild women who let their wild natures run with the winds, goddesses of Life/Death/Life cycles, La Que Sabe – the one who knows; I imagine someone like her. I imagine that face with a struggle strewn across it, fighting against whatever she had to fight, in order to let her baby, her creative labour, exist in this world.
Vasalisa the Wise
I read stories of the wise woman Vasalisa, who went into the wild jungles risking her life, to find the fire of life so she can cook and feed herself. I see how the young woman is initiated into the rites of becoming a woman, of discovering her inner creative fires – the lessons of Life/Death/Life cycles where she lets live what must live and lets die what must die – so she can feed herself with the fire. So she can have her creative endeavours feed her stomach and her children’s stomachs. So she can accomplish the rites of becoming a wild woman of the wild natures.
And then I watch the tribute to this wonderful woman who wished to be the first Black Classical Pianist in the world. She had dreams beyond the limits of her skin and her race and the society she was born in. But she was not to be contained. She accomplishes her grandest dreams that she saw as a young woman, but not until 3 days before the end of her long, fulfilling life of a seventy years. I watch the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? and somehow the stories of Vasalisa, the Wise Woman, coincide with those of Miss Simone.
As a 4 year old child, Nina was gifted with a piano and a chance to take lessons in Classical music – a chance which was rare in the Black community. She was instantly estranged by her own, much before discovering how her own were estranged too, in the society outside. She travels into the jungles of show business with this gift of music and survives its worst nightmares. Much like Vasalisa, who is left estranged when her mother dies an early death leaving behind a gift for her, a magical doll.
Dichotomies of fame, choice between selfish art and selfless civil rights activism, the decision to build one’s career or devote oneself to those in need, being treated as a race horse, even by those closest to her, an abusive marriage and finally, her own clinical manic depression and bipolar disorder.
These are nothing less than surviving the dangerous House of the Hag from Vasalisa’s legend, where impossible tasks are laid down before the woman is to be initiated into the ways of the creatively awakened woman, the wild woman.
She returns from the jungle with what she set out to seek, the fire of creative spirit awakened, alive and burning. In the story, Vasalisa returns from the jungles with a skull on fire with the eternal fire. There is a moment of being fear by what is seen of the bright light of the creative fire. There is an urge to let it all be thrown aside, for the darkness that has been brought to light, the darkness of the society around. But she carries on nevertheless, both of them carry on nevertheless, both Nina and Vasalisa. This fire burns down the destructive demons of her own being as well. Vasalisa has her evil step mother and step sisters burnt to cinders by the eternal fire of the skull. Nina fights her manic depression, the demons of her own mind and body, picked up over the years of racial discrimination, isolation, abusive marriage and pressures of a career in show business. She fights the illness with love from her estranged daughter and the modern medicine that can recognise this illness as illness and not madness. She is cured.
And finally, as Vasalisa returns home with her fires to keep her alive and healthy, Nina makes a full circle to the point where she started. As a 19 year oild, young black pianist, she was denied an entry into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music even after graduating from a prestigious institution in itself, Juilliard. Three days before her death, she receives a degree in music from the same institute.
Nina Simone (1933~2003) is a legend of both the music industry and the social activism. Her music was her way of participating in the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s America. Her music was ahead of its time in acknowledging the importance of keeping it real and true to the soul. She let herself be criticised for being unprofessional when she dedicated herself wholeheartedly to the Civil Rights movement instead of focusing on her musical career and a politically correct image. And yet she is a legendary musician with her music encompassing a variety of genres like classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop. She is known as someone who brought the discipline of the Classical music to the spontaneity of Jazz. She is known to have a mystical, almost religious relationship to her music, so much so that even the mind numbing medication of Manic Depression could not stop the flowing waters of her music.
She quit the American dream after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead. ‘The king of love was dead.’ she declared in her journals and also one of her songs. She made France her home in the later years of her life. But not before spending a brief time into the wild, and away from the show business, by staying in Africa. By returning to France, she claimed her music, her daughter and her self back.
The story of Nina Simone is an inspirational one, it is painful, depressing at times, aweinspiring and motivating all at once.
Stay with me here. I bring in stories that touch my heart and soul every Mondays and Thursdays.