(Vocals * Jazz)
Nicole Ashanti McFarlane
Fayetteville State University
Citation: McFarlane, Nicole Ashanti. “Nina Simone.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r08
Abstract: In Nicole Ashanti McFarlane’s work, she reflects on the musical legacy of Nina Simone through a fittingly polyphonic reading of “Four Women,” in keeping with Simone’s interpretation of the many voices within black women’s political and artistic vocalizing.
Keywords: Jazz Vocals, Nina Simone, Four Women, Civil Rights.
I first heard “Four Women” as a high school senior on a 5-city HBCU tour at the Atlanta University Center on the campus of Spelman College. Although the song was new to me at the time, it had been more than two decades since its 1966 release. I can still hear Nina Simone’s wailing moans, rising, and hovering above sharp piano licks. Her suspended repetition provided backdrop as a performing arts major danced for the auditorium. The movements of the dance composition, like Simone’s plaintiff timbre, were both graceful and coarse. It was in that moment that I first understood the meaning of “literal embodiment” through my own black female experience. The song with the dance had become inextricably fused in my mind. Like the song’s four protagonists—Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches—I was then realizing my positionality within a continuum of black women’s ethos.
So too, within the tight confines of Nina’s lyrical game of shapeshifting, the classically trained pianist-composer made a stark pronouncement that still holds true today. And like such pronouncements, it’s one that can be picked apart and qualified. “Four Women” continues to serve as a stark reminder of how difficult it can be to establish oneself in a world that might potentially devour or applaud you, while struggling to stay connected to a community that might alternately nurture or scorn you. Simone’s rejection of a paradoxically not-so-radical strategy of non-violent racial tactics pushes me away and pulls me forward. Simone shakes me by the shoulders and forces me to denounce a politics that would encourage black women to wear their prettiest dresses on Sunday, only to be attacked by segregationist mobs the following Monday. Simone’s plea for racial retaliation against the intergenerational indignities suffered by black women further articulates the fact of black femininity as both boon and burden. Anecdotal attempts to explain the spiritual toll such events took on Simone only further mark the song’s legendary status. She’d lost her dearest friends and comrades, all in close succession. I can relate when she complained that being black sometimes feels like everybody you know is getting picked off, one by one.
When Sam Waymon, her brother and longtime bandmate, was asked about the spark behind “Four Women,” he insisted that it was a “demonic possession” for she’d been “speaking in tongues.” Her mother actually believed Simone’s suffering called for an exorcism. So according to her brother, when “the demonic personality that was number four resurfaced,” the Waymons decided on a more reasonable compromise and had Simone committed to a mental institution. Clinical depression, doubtlessly exacerbated by the turmoil that marked the 60s, was not a readily available diagnosis during the zenith of Simone’s career and her illness was mistaken for a diva complex. On the one hand, considered too didactic and overly general, yet too expressive and folksy on the other, “Four Women” is Simone’s most criticized and admired recording. Musically, it opens up a space to reveal an indisputable truth about the specificity of African American womanhood. As each verse stretches out over symmetrical cords, an elusive conjoining of separate yet overlapping identities, traces the difficulties of transcending racial and gender stereotypes. While rhetorically, it further opens a space for explanatory power and political analysis as good as any supernatural account. An enthymematic syllogism haunted by old binaries explodes and quadruples across each level of stasis as her call for bittersweet justice is doled out by black girl killers named Peaches.
But like Richard Pryor said, if Judy Garland belongs to whites and gays, then Nina belongs to us, black folk. So as life would have it, I was quickly learning my way around the habitus of black feminist epistemology. Claims about why Simone’s behavior was deemed difficult and impetuous were only amplified by the ballad’s distinct stance against black female respectability politics. In that final dissonant cord, her suggestion is about a whole hell of a lot more than mutiny: she means anarchy. The stance I take is right here—dwelling in the blue note, beside our Ms. Simone. I think that’s why, in moments of doubt, this song plays in my head and continues to suit me all the more. For me, at a more personal level, this denunciation is her song’s greatest appeal.
Voice of Simone
I assumed the stage name, Nina Simone, upon realizing that I’d never become the first black classically trained recording artist to play Carnegie Hall and to shield my parents from discovering that I had turned into a common night club singer. To hear my Pentecostal mother and the rest of my folks down in North Carolina tell it, I am a woman possessed—used to go by Eunice Kathleen Waymon. My fans dubbed me the “High Priestess of Soul.” Most people consider me too much because my love songs sound like protest songs and vice versa. Too black. Too difficult. Too many demons. Whatever that’s supposed to mean. My people want to feel and create just as much as anyone else on the planet. But why should it come to anyone’s great surprise that Black people also wish to intelligently express feelings of tenderness and freedom? I write from—compose out of—black intelligence. I want to show my audiences, or anyone else who happens to meet me through “Four Women,” as well as my other compositions and arrangements, that I am completely being with and for myself and my people. If the audience finds it disturbing, then fine! to reflect the life and times of my people and to be a medium for that disturbance, I actually seek it out, embracing it as my duty. I believe it’s as much my role to disrupt as it is to soothe (if I’m being honest). But it is something I felt compelled to do.
Family blamed my flaws on the need for Christian rebuke. Show-business types called me “unpredictable” and “volatile” because the part of me that is able to compose “Four Women” is the same part that’s ill-equipped to handle the brutality of American society. White Americans seem almost unanimously hell bent on ending black lives. Why should I not be outraged? It struck me as a means to pigeonhole me, for white people to persecute black artistry that dares to reveal the truth of all humanity. I was not always terribly strong, but I did what I could do, which was more than most. I was suicidal after Lorraine Hansberry died from cancer. And then Malcolm—he was my next-door neighbor—got shot to death and so I decided to live instead. You might say I went on living because of my refusal to advance black genocide. I had to learn to live without fear, in some kind of way. I resigned myself to accepting the labels given to me by family and doctors. It had to be in order to assuage a deep unfulfilled desire to bring about racial, gender, and sexual freedom through art. I never accepted it for what it was. I was utterly indignant about being categorized, alternately labeled rhythm and blues vocalist, jazz pianist, and so on. Black versus white. Female versus male. Rock versus Soul. Composer versus singer. There is right and then, there is wrong.
There are times when I’m feeling soft and warm. Other times, quite the opposite. The trick, you see, is not to adapt exactly, nor even necessarily to assimilate; rather, my occupation would be to stay always ready to contest dominant cultural narratives and remain alert to the need of having to occasionally deviate from the space to which I’d been assigned. I never could just go wherever I was told… I had to question things. Through “Four Women,” we can sense what it means to be a part of the world, even as it remains certain that you’ll always be apart from it.
- Historically Black College University
- In keeping with Simone’s interpretation of the many voices within black women’s political and artistic performance, the author would like to give a special thanks to fellow Nina Simone fan and vocal coach, Yolanda (Yogii) Barnes, for helping to capture a convincing Nina-esque performance.