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Nina Simone: So Close Yet . . .

A journey to find the legendary singer-poetess in Paris before her show at the Wiltern leaves mystery intact.

June 22, 2000|SHONDA BUCHANAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lufthansa Airlines gate, Los Angeles, March 30, 1999

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The weight of artistry is unlike any other. It is not like a shackle you can remove once you buy your freedom. It is not a fragile sheath of skin you can crawl out of at the end of your life. It is so unlike any other choice of profession or career because it, the art, lives and breathes inside you. It often holds your eyes steady when you want to let them wander on the other side of sane. It becomes the breath, many times saving your life with a well-placed kiss, a piece of bread, a corner of water, a straw.

That is what I recognized the moment I came to know the music of Nina Simone in the summer of 1993. Her lyrics spilled in my mouth like a young woman about to lose her virginity to the right man. My work as a performance artist and a poet--granted, like comparing a sliver to a redwood--resembled Nina's. My etchings as a writer and a poet filled up within me like a well of crisp Michigan water, seeping with a heady speed into me, even as time emptied it. On more than one occasion, Nina Simone's words and music saved my life.

I've come to Nina as someone who thinks it's extremely important to unearth her role shaping the current alternative musical landscape. Her contribution to the culture of politics and the black power movement is solid and much of it unearthed. But mostly, secretly, I am fascinated with the ghost of the woman who always, no matter whose arms she found herself in, seemed to feel a profound loneliness. Reading about Nina's political ideas and revelations in her autobiography, "I Put a Spell on You," I wondered what I could say to Nina that wouldn't set her afire with disdain for my youth. Still, there was so much I wanted to ask her. How was she? What was her music like today? What did she think of the current state of black America?

Nina's guard had gotten on in age; politics have changed. Many of her friends, comrades and lovers have crossed over. We writers believe we can change the world through the power of the pen and not a gun. How does that make her feel?

Five hours later, flying over the Atlantic

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When I brought my idea to the magazine class, I shyly dropped my silent passion: "I want to write an article to the effect of looking for Nina Simone." Her name fell like an unwanted piece of fruit on the table.

"Who's Nina Simone?" The innocence in the young college girl's eyes was painful. The professor and I exchanged stunned glances, and then smirks at their ignorance. At that moment, I realized I was in the 30-something club for good. Most of the circles I traveled in had a Nina story.

Originally, I took this class as a job requirement to keep current with the times, but these sweet babes were just breaking pimples as second- and third-year students. Even though Nina Simone was technically before my time also, I could say to them: "She was way before your time."

I had stumbled upon her music at a knockdown record store in a half-off bin, and the first time became the hundredth time that I played that tape. I wore it out. Eventually, even my then 6-year-old daughter could sing "Mississippi God----," word for word.

As a poet and budding performance artist, I found that Nina's lyrics poured an entirely new concept of poetry and song into my realm. As I grew into my art, I knew she was someone who had freed me from the normal R&B supposition for black artists. I would step onto the stage and wave the musicians into silence, unafraid of my own rustic, untrained voice because she'd already done it. Without a word of greeting to my audience, I too would plunge into a melancholy tune.

I am, by far, not the first performance artist to integrate Nina into their work. Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Oleta Adams, Nancy Wilson and countless others have discovered their own personal styles, becoming vessels of prayer as the song flows through, teaching us with their passion and, if nothing else, holding a candle up to their own pain.

So when I said I wanted to write an article about Nina Simone, the class deflated. My teacher fueled up. That day, he asked everyone to ask me one question about my story, rapid-fire. As they shot questions at me, the Nina story filled in. I answered their questions as best I could, but I knew that I was barely articulating the utter devotion to the art and the artist. I sputtered because I honestly and fully didn't know what I wanted to say. I just knew it had to be said. I talked until my throat was dry. I was unable to wrestle this feeling, a silent keening obsession with the enigma of Nina Simone: her music against the silence, her voice against the hard times, a multi-emblemed flower, a symbol of survival on each petal.

Slowly the article took on a life of its own as Nina's essence danced on the smooth tabletop in the chilly room. Later that night, the professor called me and left a message saying, "You realize that you have a book here."

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