Nina Simone Black Diva Power is a perfectly named performance piece from Melbourne based and Brixton raised jazz artist Ruth Rogers-Wright as it explored not only the music but the political activism of one of the most high profile Afro-American women of her time.
Nina Simone – 1933 to 2003 – born Eunice Kathleen Waymon was a gifted musical prodigy who wanted only to study classical music and become the first black American concert pianist. Sadly, it seems that her entry into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Philadelphia failed not because of any musical ability, but because of her race and colour. That rejection forced Nina Simone onto a different musical career path and, along with many other such incidents in her life, led to the easy political radicalisation of her and creation of Nina Simone the political activist.
Ruth has a big advantage over me and that is that she has seen Nina Simone perform four times. I have never had that experience, but I imagine that the real Nina would have taken to the stage with all the pride and strength that Ruth did here (to the tune of “My Baby Just cares For Me”).
This performance gets straight into the political activism era as we have her meeting activist, poet, and writer Lorraine Hansberry. It is difficult to write this review without at least covering the Black Civil Rights movement of America in the 1950s and 1960s as once Nina became involved with people like Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and of course Lorraine, her music became entwined with her activism, and this performance is as much about that side of Nina Simone as her music.
This political activist side of Nina is actually the side of her that I found out about first. My first encounter with the music of Nina Simone was through hearing a reggae version of her classic “To Be Young Gifted and Black” song by Bob & Marcia in the 1970s on a compilation album. Their original song had been a huge UK hit in 1970. I had no idea this was a Nina Simone song and quite honestly it was the music that interested me and it was some time later that I found out who the original artist was and just what the lyrics were about (this was pre easy information on the internet days). As I found out more about Nina, her music and political interests it led me to look at other people involved in the movement and for the first time I actually found someone saying “I am black and I am proud of that – this is me and this is where I have come from”. This was all long before her music was used in massive advertising campaigns.
Ruth performed some powerful songs tonight and standing out for me in this show was a version of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (which Nina recorded). This song with its very disturbing lyrics about black lynching victims always moves me. Other great Nina Simone songs included “I Loves You Porgy” (her first USA hit) and her classic cover version “My Baby Just Cares For Me” We also had an examination of the real meaning behind the lyrics of Kurt Weil’s “Mack The Knife”. We also of course had a very touching version of “To Be Young Gifted and Black” as Ruth tells Nina that she is dying of cancer (at only 35) and to carry on her work...and Nina Simone certainly did that.
This was a short (roughly an hour) but very powerful performance that raised many questions as the issues that drove Nina Simone to be an activist have never really gone away. It is impossible to really write this review without raising the issues of race and colour as that is what it is about, and it is interesting to me that on stage Nina Simone is confronting the dilemma that she is playing to an almost exclusively white audience and again on stage here, Ruth is playing to exactly the same type of audience.
I will probably get a comment from some people about this part of the review, but I believe that Nina Simone is a far more powerful icon to many people of black origin than white origin. I say that not as a racial statement, but for the simple fact that as a white person I can look at the issues that formed Nina’s life and political views, but I am not black, I have no black heritage and can never experience (thankfully) what that type of injustice and segregation based purely on the colour of your skin means. I also have no concept of what centuries of slavery did to my ancestors (in Nina’s case not too many generations before) or how that still may cause issues today for me. In the end, Nina Simone was not writing these powerful songs for a white audience but for her own people, and there is a point in this history where I can only observe and learn as it is simply not my story or heritage. I can of course enjoy the music of Nina Simone irrespective of where I came from.
There is always this contradiction with Nina Simone too as her true love was it seems always classical music and she considered that to be superior to “pop music”. That classical music of course has a very definitely white European origin and it is always to me a tribute to Nina that despite what some people in her activist circle may have thought of that, she never gave that up. Yes, this is a woman who fought against injustice, stood up for freedom, but also believed that both cultures had something to offer one another.
Ruth Rogers-Wright does a fine job of bringing some of that anger that was in Nina Simone, but also at the end balances everything with a beautiful poem of her own about Nina.