I've been thinking about this almost quote from Nina Simone...I couldn't recall it exactly.... She was on track to gain a lot of popularity and success from just doing mild, impotent jazz music. But instead she chose to write songs like Mississippi, God Damn and Strange Fruit.
She was outspoken about the civil rights movement and the need for the USA to change its culture, law and ideology around race.
And she walked up to Martin Luther King and told him she was not non-violent. There is filmed evidence that she asked her African American audience if they were ready to kill, if necessary.
She also stayed with a husband who admits to beating her. She admits her husband stopped her picking up a gun and going out on the street with militant civil rights activists.
She was punished for being so outspoken and angry and she defended the artists role in changing culture.
“I think the artists who don't get involved in preaching messages are probably happier, but I have to be involved with being Nina, and that is very difficult" she told a radio interviewer.
Her conscience lead her to fight for what's right, and yet she had some serious demons that kept her musicians scared and her inner life depressed and struggling.
There was much talk, in this documentary, of the toll it took on families and individuals, to participate in social activism. Nina Simone was no different.
This has raised many interesting points to ponder, about what my role as an artist is, how my role as a counsellor and life coach affects that, what the role of any individual is in a whole movement and whether the only people to take on serious involvement in such social change are, by necessity, troubled.
In my musical work with James (jamesandnaomi.com), we've discussed how life has been fairly good for us both, we have nothing much to complain about (though, as good humans, we still manage to find things to complain about). We want our music to reflect the reality that we experience...things are ok. It would be a lie to pretend we had a lot of angst or grievances. We are generally happy people, and we are hopeful people and we have much to be grateful for.
What have we to say about social commentary? We have opinions, we are educated and we are informed, but we haven't experienced much to get terribly angry about. Yet, we live in a world where gross inequality, injustice and hatred hold great sway.
As Simone's daughter talked about her mother's demise, how her mother beat her when she was young, how Simone was mean and cruel to her duaghter, the documentary showed Simone's sad spiral down, her uncontrollable emotionality, her sexual screwedup-ness. It just made me wonder what it takes, what it will take, to truly love the world and bring it real healing, deep personal healing, not just social change. As a counsellor/life coach, I know healing what lies within is essential to doing any healing of the world.
In the 80's, Simone had fallen from grace, admitting she couldn't sing her civil rights songs anymore because they have no relevance. She was living in Paris, in rags and a dirty apartment. Sometime after that, she was diagnosed as manic depressive. While some old friends helped her get back up and onto stages like Montraeux Jazz Festival from this low point, something had changed. She'd lost her fire.
Still, as a white, middle class, well educated Australian woman, born in the 1970's, when I listen to Strange Fruit, my eyes tear up. The music, and the artist, have captured something that speaks to the soul, despite my lack of any experience that resembles it and long past the event that inspired it.
In the end, when Simone was medicated for her illness, she developed ticks and lost motor skills. Yet when she sat at the piano she was brilliant, though at times her face showed no emotion.
The demons we battle inside can make or break us. As a counsellor/coach, that's the social change that I want to speak to - the kind that might have taken this beautiful, talented woman, who gave so much to so many, and made her happier, healthier and freer. But would that have avoided the intensity that wrote Strange Fruit? Perhaps
“Southern trees bear strange fruit
blood on the leaves
blood at the roots.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."
What do you think the artist's role in social commentary is? Let me know in the comments below.