Archive for role playing

Four Women

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 9, 2013 by Richard

Nina Simone’s body of work is one in which issues of theatricality, history and identity, and a multiplicity of voices and roles find representation. All of these are evocatively combined in Simone’s self-written ‘Four Women’. The song was first released on the 1965 album Wild is the Wind (1965), although its reputation prior to the album’s release deemed it significant enough to be featured as the main title of the record, the font for the song being larger than that for the album title. Simone described ‘Four Women’ as follows:

The women in the song are black, but their skin tones range from light to dark and their ideas of beauty and their own importance are deeply influenced by that. All the song did was to tell what entered the minds of most black women in America when they thought about themselves: their complexions, their hair … and what other women thought of them. Black women didn’t know what the hell they wanted because they were defined by things they didn’t control, and until they had the confidence to define themselves they’d be stuck in the same mess forever – that was the point the song made.

‘Four Women’ opens with a stately repeated piano figure accompanied by light percussion. Simone portrays the first woman by describing her black skin, long arms, woolly hair and strong back – “strong enough to take the pain / inflicted again and again”.  As she will do for all the women depicted in the song, Simone closes the verse  by naming the subject: “What do they call me? / My name is Aunt Sara”. Joined by Rudy Stevenson’s gently insistent guitar, Simone repeats the name before going on to describe the second woman: yellow-skinned, long-haired Saffronia, the daughter of a black woman raped by a rich, white man. A few brief piano trills precede the description of Sweet Thing, a prostitute whose seductive charms are emphasized by a keening flute (played by Stevenson). The voice adopts a harsher, grainier tone for the final verse, which introduces a more assertive, militant figure, a brown-skinned woman whose “manner is tough” and who claims she will “kill the first mother I see”. As all the instruments move together, Simone brings the song to a rousing climax, her voice rising to a shout: “What do they call me? / My name … is … PEA-CHES!”

Simone_WITWIn addition to the evocative imagery that Simone uses in ‘Four Women’, much of the song’s power comes from the symmetry of the four verses. Unlike the shifting metres and dynamics of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and ‘Pirate Jenny‘, ‘Four Women’ builds its affect on consistency, each verse following what we might call the same “biometric” logic. To the same metric structure, the bodily features of each woman are outlined (skin, hair, back, hips), some historical or biographical detail is provided and, finally, a name is given. However, although the declarations that end each verse are delivered as first person possessives (“My name is …”), the penultimate lines of each verse place emphasis on others’ definitions rather than on self-definition: “What do they call me?” By posing the question this way, Simone’s women are conforming to a representation under the gaze of others as described by W.E.B. Du Bois in his account of “double consciousness”:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Double consciousness is most explicitly conveyed in ‘Four Women’ by Saffronia who claims to belong “between two worlds”, but Du Bois’s points are equally true of the other women in the song.

It is tempting to connect the concept of double consciousness to Nina Simone herself, given that types of in-betweenness seem to appear throughout her career. Not only was she an artist between, or beyond, categorization, but even her piano style evoked the sense that one was listening to “two different people – the bass player and the soloist” according to her long-time drummer Paul Robinson. Her voice would also do quite different things to what her hands were doing, as, for example, on her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne‘, where the voice seems to be operating in a different time zone to her piano accompaniment (this double timing, wherein a slow or stretched vocal is overlaid on a fast instrumental or percussive base could be seen as a derivation from African music). As if connecting her life experience to the way she played music, Simone placed herself metaphorically “between the keys of a piano … My secret self is between these worlds”. Simone’s relationship with double consciousness is further complicated by her bipolar condition, which seems to have been the cause of much of the “capriciousness” (a self-description) witnessed in her  interaction with audiences and industry figures, although to say this in no way to deny the socio-historical factors to which Simone was subject. Rather, to note the coexistence of these splits is to emphasize again the interaction of the public and the personal, the collective and the individual, history and biography. Du Bois, like Frantz Fanon later, was keenly aware that the historical, collective experience of racism and colonization was something experienced within the individual psyche, while mental disorder always contains a social, public aspect, especially in a figure whose life is lived out in public.

However, as tempting as it may be to read Nina Simone into one or more of the characters in ‘Four Women’ (biographer David Brun-Lambert, for example, sees the women as representatives of different moments in Simone’s life), we should also consider Simone as a “fifth” woman, exterior to the others. Seeing her as one (or all) of the women within the narrative reduces the longer historical dynamic of the song and neglects the importance of standing outside, of having a viewpoint that is not that of the victim. Peaches, for all her militancy, is still a victim and it is not her declamatory victory that represents Simone’s power (though it can be certainly be read as a representation of Black Power), but rather the distance that Simone maintains as a storyteller able to marshal all of these voices into a profoundly moving piece of sonic art. Arguably, we should not read any of the four women as representing Simone herself; instead, we should see them as finely wrought characters born of a great storyteller, one able to hold her audience spellbound while she narrates her tale.

The multiple personalities of ‘Four Women’ have been brought out in subsequent versions of the song, such as those performed in the broadcats above (one featuring Marsha Ambrosius, Kelly Price, Jill Scott and Ledisi, the other featuring Diane Reeves, Lizz Wright and Nina Simone’s daughter Simone [Lisa Kelly]). The song has also been used as the basis for a number of contemporary choreographic projects, allowing another way for the performance of the four women to be staged. A multi-voiced version of the song appears during the end credits of Tyler Perry’s 2010 film For Colored Girls, an adaptation of Ntozake Shange‘s choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. A sample from Simone’s original recording is followed by newly recorded verses by Lisa Simone, Laura Izibor and Ledisi [the song starts at 1:05:11 in the clip below]. The recording realizes the multi-vocal possibility always suggested by the song while also partly telling the story of the “suicidal” women depicted in Shange’s drama and connecting Simone to a new sisterhood.

A connection between Shange’s play and Simone’s song had already been highlighted in 2000 by the rapper Talib Kweli, when he included a “cover version” of ‘Four Women’ on Reflection Eternal: Train of Thought, his album with Hi-Tek (the song appears as an “extra track” following ‘Expansion Outro‘). Kweli entitles his version of the song ‘For Women’ in a nod to Shange’s work, which he also namechecks during his rap. Kweli appears to have based his track not on the version of ‘Four Women’ that appears on Wild is the Wind, but on a later live recording included on the Live at Berkeley album and on subsequent compilations.  What is notable here, especially given the non-biographical reading of ‘Four Women’ offered above, is that Kweli has chosen, deliberately or not, to re-enact a version of the song in which Simone explicitly connected herself to her material. A story Simone tells about her mother during her introduction to the song also becomes Kweli’s introduction as he stresses that the first, and presumably oldest, woman mentioned in the song, Aunt Sara, is still alive. Simone’s point had been to highlight the fact that the song is not (only) a chronological account of black women’s consciousness from Emancipation to the militant 1960s, but rather a narration of coexisting modes of black female consciousness and complex notions of identity. In the same way that Simone, as diva, voiced all these women, so, she seemed to suggest, are her black female listeners all these women. With the live recording, listening as witnessing conflates with listening as burden: all her auditors must bear witness to these roles and carry their burdens.


Kweli uses Aunt Sara’s longevity to suggest, as elsewhere on Reflection Eternal: Train of Thought, the importance of paying attention to experience: as he says in his spoken preamble, “we can’t forget our elders”. Kweli may be referring to Simone at this point, but his point is taken up again in the verse relating his meeting with Aunt Sara: “Just her presence was a blessing and her essence was a lesson … Livin’ a century, the strength of her memories”. Where Simone had mentioned in her spoken interlude that “Aunt Sara has lived long enough to see the full circle come round”, Kweli extends the point to make the cyclical processes of identification (self and other) explicit. Where Aunt Sara had been a continuing identity for Simone (possibly based on her own mother and, by extension, to those aspects of her mother she found in herself), for Kweli, highlighting as he does the necessity to learn from previous generations, Sara represents a history lesson. This is certainly how Michael Eric Dyson reads Kweli’s version:

The entire song is a study in the narrative reconstruction of the fragmented elements of black survival and a cautionary tale against the racial amnesia that destroys the fabric of black collective memory. By appealing to Simone’s rhetorical precedent, Kweli situates the song’s heuristic logic inside the matrix of racial identity and cultural continuity. By baptizing Simone’s sentiments in a hip-hop rhetorical form, Kweli raises new questions about the relation between history and contemporary social practice and fuses the generational ambitions of two gifted artists – himself and Simone – while depicting the distinct political imperatives that drive his art.

Dyson, like Mark Anthony Neal, is keen to locate a sense of history in black music that removes it from accusations of “presentism” and its accompanying association with commercialism and locates it rather in the ongoing formation of a “black public sphere”. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Kweli’s “reflection eternal” is a sustained and convincing project of cultural memory work and ‘For Women’ serves as a useful addedum to the Train of Thought album. Furthermore, Kweli’s shout-outs to Nina Simone on his tracks ‘The Blast’ (on Reflection Eternal) and ‘Music’ (on Best Of), along with his sampling of ‘Sinnerman’ on ‘Get By’ (from Quality), suggest that his evocation of Simone as a figurehead for the hip hop generations should be taken seriously.

A more recent use of ‘Four Women’ as cultural memory can be heard in a version recorded by Dee Dee Bridgewater on an album recorded in Bamako with Malian musicians. By collaborating with African musicians and placing the song as a “standard” amidst a programme of international and intercultural songs, Bridgewater is able to expose further historical folds in Simone’s narrative.

Strange Fruit

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on June 2, 2013 by Richard

Billie Holiday began performing ‘Strange Fruit’, the anti-lynching song written by Abel Meeropol (under the pen-name “Lewis Allan”), in 1939.  It was, as David Margolick notes, a difficult song to categorize at the time: “too artsy to be folk music, too explicitly political and polemical to be jazz”. Although jazz would come to be seen as a vital medium for the expression of discontent by the time Nina Simone came to record Meeropol’s song, this was not the case in 1939. Dorian Lynskey identifies the newness and strangeness of ‘Strange Fruit’ in the way it alienated audiences rather than inviting complicity or solidarity as contemporaneous propaganda songs tended to. Rather than aiming for collaboration, “the music, stealthy, half in shadow, incarnated the horror described in the lyric” (Lysnkey).

The artistry of the song (and of Holiday’s timeless performance) has invited debates about the relationship between art, popular music and protest, something Simone would have understood very clearly in her self-written protest songs and in the artistic license she took with those of others. Years later, reflecting on her attitude to protest songs during the 1960s, she wrote:

Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning. And until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me I had musical problems as well: how can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like “protest music” because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate.

Simone’s attitude changed as she began to compose her own protest material and to politicize that of others. Like Holiday, she would take protest material into the supper clubs and, like Meeropol and Holiday, she would make it art.


Janell Hobson, like Lynskey, notes Holiday’s ability to avoid the potential pathos of ‘Strange Fruit’ and to avoid sentimentality through the use of ironic distance. Meeropol’s words, for Hobson, fetishize the black body, which is “rendered metaphorically, even romantically, as ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees'”. Holiday’s vocal “bring[s] alive the poem’s ironic edge by invoking the cynicism and despair that elevated the song from sentimentality to poignancy”. This is achieved through moments such as Holiday’s “sour” delivery of the word “bitter” and “the long, drawn-out off-key intonation of the word crop”. For her part, Simone moves between Holiday’s ironic stillness and a more anguished cry. She offers a solo piano reading with little of the mercury virtuosity of many of her recitals, opting instead for slow-moving chords over which she stretches her voice, quiet at first, rising in volume at the mention of “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze”, then dropping again.  As the song progresses, she moves through sadness, poignancy and horror, the latter articulated via the shadow of her grainy breath, which is audible at certain points. At no point does she sound sentimental, although she manages this avoidance in a manner distinct from Holiday’s. Where Holiday had adopted a distracted, flat and ironic (“sour”) tone, one which meant that the potentially “voyeuristic” lines were granted an almost Brechtian alienation, Simone’s is a more chiaroscuro reading, its light and dark textures unfolding the grim tale in the manner of a film noir. In the latter stages of the song, Simone starts to stretch the words to ever greater lengths, spending ten startling seconds on the word “leaves” (2:24-34). She saves the greatest amount of articulation for the final “crop”, substituting Holiday’s inquisitive articulation of the word for four swiftly traversed notes.

Simone’s rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’, with its shift between flatness and depth of field, provides further evidence that, for her, blankness and the neutral tone were part of a wider set of performance dynamics that also included the sass of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and the controlled vulnerability (or vulnerable control) of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Maria Callas. Perhaps one of the reasons she insisted on identifying with Callas rather than Holiday was a recognition of the multiplicity of roles she could and would play, not only within a concert performance, but even within one song.

Speaking about ‘Strange Fruit’ a few years after first recording it, Simone described it as “about the ugliest song I’ve ever heard”. She can be seen talking about the song in the following clip (from 5:30 onwards):