Now that Zoe Saldana has been thoroughly read, we can focus on another important element of Nina Simone's remembrance: Giving her a film that actually authentically depicts her life in its complexity, struggle and brilliance.
I saw the Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Nina Simone?, which I found demoralizing in its title and horrifying to watch. Once I learned that Simone's daughter actually had a lot to do with the production of that documentary, my horror grew. If you haven't seen it yet, I won't go into much detail. However, giving Ms. Simone's abusive husband a platform — which he used to mostly berate Nina — was an egregious error on the filmmaker's part. I left that documentary feeling like I knew her less than before I'd begun watching it. The Hollywood production can only be summed up as a circus, sensationalizing her life in ways that are just downright false.
But did any of you know that there is another documentary, and it's actually fantastic?! Jeff L. Lieberman's The Amazing Nina Simone was so thorough, thoughtful and precise that I reached out to Jeff after seeing it to gain more insight into his thoughts surrounding the film. I found him to be as thoughtful and honest as his film. Check out our chat below:
Blavity: Who is Nina Simone to you?
Jeff Lieberman: Nina Simone is an artist like none other. She is fierce and unapologetic. She is unique and unfiltered, giving listeners a true authenticity often unfound in our music universe. She is a freedom fighter, a woman of brave choices, bolds stands, a style icon, a serious risk-taker and uncompromising in her vision of black freedom and equality. She is also a brilliant musician who could take a song and totally make it her own, adding piano flourishes and unique vocal stylings that can induce utter joy or complete sadness. She is an overlooked musical genius, beloved around the world by devoted fans, and someone who has been saying Black Lives Matter since the 1940s, starting in her small Southern town at age 11, to Carnegie Hall when she proclaimed "Mississippi Goddam" at 31 years old and throughout the entire course of her life. As a fierce believer in social justice, she is truly my hero.
B: What has her music meant to you?
JL: Her music has had a special place in my heart. It's introduced me to a time and era that I find especially captivating, and given a counter-narrative to the Civil Rights Movement that is hard to find anywhere else. I've danced to her music, sang her music, been consoled, been uplifted, and listened in awe to some of the ways Nina brings life to a song. It's hard to describe exactly why her music touches me, whether it's her sound, tone, lyrics, piano interludes, the deep androgynous lusciousness of her voice or her choice of song, but it's been a big part of my life for the last 20 years.
B: What do you hope people take away from your documentary?
JL: My intention with this film was to help tell Nina Simone's phenomenal story, and help bring more context to her music, life and incredible accomplishments. When I discovered Nina's classical music background, her politicization among friends such as Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, and her tremendous unrecognized musical role in the Civil Rights Movement, I felt that her fans would gain an even greater appreciation for Nina and her music. One could watch the film and then go home and listen to her music again with new context and knowledge to the meaning of her iconic songs. I also felt that many of her fans often wondered about Nina's behavior and that too often Nina was dismissed as crazy. I felt speaking about Nina's mental illness could perhaps bring compassion and a new understanding to Nina's life, and at the same time, I wanted the film to show that it wasn't just mental illness that drove Nina's bold and controversial choices. I wanted people to understand her bravery and brilliance, and what it takes to truly be an artist that fights for the causes near to one's heart. In 1963, people were not used to a black woman demanding equality and respect, and they certainly weren't used to hearing someone like Nina voice outrage at segregation, racial violence, and economic inequality. It's easy to dismiss Nina as "crazy" or "violent" as often people like to do when they don't know her story or when certain films choose to focus on the most sensational elements of her life. When you see The Amazing Nina Simone, I challenge anyone to not realize that her defining characteristics were brilliant and brave.
B: What was the most difficult part about creating the film? How did you overcome that challenge?
JL: Making a documentary is tough work, and even more difficult when producing it independently, without the strings of corporate or investor interests. Taking on a subject as complex as Nina Simone adds another level. I also wondered if not being from Nina's era or culture would affect my ability to truly understand the nuances of her experience. I also feared that others would have the same question. To add to this, once I began the project, another VERY well-funded production began a competing documentary on the same subject, which posed a whole new set of challenges. Carving a place for the film has been a challenge, but out of the 3 Nina Simone films, I am most proud that I overcame all these challenges, completed the film, and been on the right side of history. The film has been embraced by audiences in over 65 cities, and Nina's fans have heard the TRUE story of Nina's life, career, challenges, ups and downs, as told by over 50 of her friends, family, band members, lovers and fellow activists. That has been no easy task, but every audience member that sees the film and gasps, laughs or sheds a tear has given me a tremendous confidence that we are truly honoring Nina.
B: If you could have cast someone to play Nina Simone in the Hollywood depiction, who would it be and why?
JL: Impersonating Nina Simone is a job that I wish on nobody. Nina is a powerful figure, and more complex than any of us will ever understand. Even those who I've interviewed speak about all these different sides and personalities that I'm not sure anyone could ever capture completely. I think it would take an actress of tremendous experience and acting chops to even begin to take on that role. My best suggestion would be Alfre Woodard, who has proven herself throughout many decades as an extremely strong actor. I would also suggest Viola Davis or Lorraine Toussaint. No prosthetics or dark-skinned makeup would be needed for any of these actors — elements that are a distraction and make a caricature of Nina Simone. It goes without saying that Hollywood has a history of casting lighter-skin actors, and Nina even felt that her dark skin and wider nose were obstacles throughout much of her life, including the reason she was never featured on the cover of a magazine, like Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, her lighter-skinned contemporaries.
There are also plenty of young women who I feel truly "get" Nina (like India Arie) and could potentially capture Nina's height of artistry in the 1960s. However, I think it's important to recognize that this biopic chose to portray Nina in the 1990s, the final decade of her life when Nina was in her 60s. In the controversy over the black-face makeup, prosthetics and casting choice, this is scarcely being mentioned in the press, and this is my larger issue with the film. While I believe Clifton Henderson (whose story "Nina" is loosely based upon) had good intentions when he first began caring for Nina, he ended up isolating her from friends and family, over-medicating her, and taking large percentages of her payments. This is not an uncommon ending for many celebrities of a certain era, and perhaps an interesting story if Nina had not had six other decades of phenomenal musical accomplishments, civil rights stands, and been a symbol for so many people of freedom, pride and artistry. To overlook these moments in favor of sensational drama like Nina brandishing a gun and throwing champagne bottles is not only an insult to her very rich and complex life, but is a blatant white-washing of her achievements as a black woman in 20th century America. It exposes the deep ignorance of the cast, director and production team. Having read the script for the film four years ago, I can say that anyone involved in the production was deeply aware of the choices they were making with this production and should be held responsible.
I love narrative films and have seen great films that portray real people. However, I think the only person who should be playing Nina is Nina. Her story is not fit for the condensing and sensationalizing that are part of the formulaic approach to conventional Hollywood biopics. Nina's story and genius lives on in her performance clips, and anyone who truly wants to know the real Nina should see the real person as told by over 50 of her friends, family, band members, lovers and fellow activists in The Amazing Nina Simone. I say this not as the director of the film, but as a fan.
For More Information About Jeff's Documentary Visit www.amazingnina.com
What are your thoughts about how Nina Simone is portrayed? How would you like to see her story told?
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It’s easy to lose track of greatness in music. The popular music of black Americans has mutated and continues to mutate at such at an amazing speed while dominating global charts that it's very hard to actually pin down musical genius. But I'm here to explain why Brandford Marsalis is a musical genius — and to detail his contributions to not just jazz, but all kinds of music.
The first hip-hop producers were avid samplers of music that was not at all popular. It all changed with the 1991 case “Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc” though the best producers continue to be inspired by great musicianship. "The hip, the hop," as the Sugarhill gang crew put it, were achieved through a deep understanding of all sorts of music, especially jazz. Not listening to Branford, an important Jazz great, is not getting down with the real hip-hop culture. His music includes many cultural artifacts of the era that gave rise to hip-hop and just absolutely great jazz music.
His album Bloomington is one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. In my opinion, he's way better at music than his famous brother Wynton Marsalis is. He is a great soloist and he composes so well. He also interprets the compositions of others incredibly well. He doesn't pander to contemporary mentality and asks of us to contemplate art. What’s worse is that Branford is a modern artist, an individualist. Like Miles Davis, Branford himself tried his hand at hip-hop with the group Buckshot Lefonque — but he made hip-hop how he wanted to. It might be why he's not considered a Miles Davis, because Miles pandered to contemporary mentality. He's not a free jazz person either, so cut him out of the Pharaoh Sanders and John Coltrane comparisons. He’s not a Dexter Gordon Hard Bop guy who wants to “communicate with his audience.” Officially, he’s one of Art Blakey’s “Young Lions,” and his music is an evolution of Hard Bop. His evolution stands on its own.
What’s fascinating is that his music comes along when hip-hop does and is an artifact of the era. Radio, language and American city life are things had already begun to massively change when Branford released his first album, Scenes In The City, in 1984. The 1980s and 1990s came with a literal bang and pictures and old film tell us what was fascinating. The list of fascinations is long, including the golden age of romantic comedies and televisual middle-class-ness that was a lot of the 1980s, rock and roll culture, republican culture, racial tension, the massive immigration of Caribbeans to New York, etc. It all led to the hip-hop culture and other traditions born from that time that we all know of today.
Field hollers, banns playing, djuba pats and work songs, folk songs and congo square dancing, jazz to boogie woogie to funk, R&B, pop, disco, gospel, ragtime, etc., the list of great black musicians is so long that it’s ridiculous. Hip-hop culture calls for an appreciation of other black musical genres. It is one of its greatest fortes, including poetry and a certain gothic aesthetic, gothic realism, that has been that of William Faulkner and many writers and can be heard in rock 'n' roll but has never been as popular as with hip-hop. Branford Marsalis is a musician that both musical and cultural mutation has obscured. The thing is that he is one for the great musical minds, regardless of his popularity (which is pretty large in the jazz community). He should be listened to avidly by every hip-hop culture fan, a culture open and developed by the appreciation of other musical genres.
Emmanuel Adolf Alzuphar is a music critic. He also writes poems and
songs. He attended the George Washington University.
READ NEXT: What happened to jazz's popularity in the black...
Jazz stopped being popular with black audiences in the 1950s, in 1959 to quote the Grammy-winning jazz musician Nicholas Payton. Other than the continued presence of smooth jazz in most of our lives and for jazz in hip-hop, despite the number of black jazz musicians, jazz has become almost insignificant in popular black culture.
No one dances the jazz dances of before. Jazz is listened to as if it’s chamber music (chamber jazz in a genre). However, once upon a time it used to move crowds and make men and women hysteric. Some say that jazz stopped being popular because commercially concerned whites were also deciding what it should be. That’s certainly a big reason why, as it is for the current state of R&B and hip-hop. However, jazz might have stopped being relevant because of the ethnocentric civilization that came after World War II, the books, the gestures, the mentalities, the dress, the ambitions, etc. In came new Ethos and a community to match. Many musicians tried to cater to the new Ethos, such as Miles Davis and his album On The Corner, but it was over. Ever since, jazz has been a cult thing.
The origins of jazz are lost. The first recorded album of jazz was by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and all-white band. The jazz band that was supposed to have invented jazz never recorded anything. Is jazz music quite simply the product of life in a city with a carnival? As the Athenian theatre of the antiquities came out of Dionysian festivities (ancestor of carnival), Indian drama the product of dances associated with fertility cult ceremonies, french court ballet from carnival masquerades, African masks and dances from rituals and ceremonies, it might be the case that years of New Orleans carnival but also of musical practice and of education led to a musical drama played by a band named jazz and danced to by crowds. Early jazz, such as Papa Celestin’s song “Marie Laveau,” is full of characters and their stories sung in the tragicomic first person like carnivals and many songs are in the societies that French colonialism gave birth to, such as Trinidad and Haiti. Like in a Trinidadian carnival, Jelly Roll Morton, one of the first jazz musicians, played in character. Jelly Roll was supposed to mean a woman’s private part and it matches names like “fighting sparrow” in Trinidadian carnival.
Carnival lead to entire aesthetics in Europe as jazz did in black culture. Rabelais, Moliere and a whole bunch of great writers who today civilize Europeans found their aesthetics in carnivals. There is even carnival in Shakespeare. In black culture, the black writer who most famously wrote jazz poems was Langston Hughes. However, reading a Hughes poem is not like listening to a jazz song or a swing song from before 1959. His poems have a jazz-like rhythm but not jazz culture like content. He is simply treating the subject the reality of jazz. To quote Henry Louis Gates, Jr., he is participating in the call and response that is the discussion about the humanity in black life. The following is his poem "Jazzonia."
Oh, silver tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!
In a Harlem cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.
A dancing girl whose eyes are bold
Lifts high a dress of silken gold.
Oh, singing tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!
Were Eve's eyes
In the first garden
Just a bit too bold?
Was Cleopatra gorgeous
In a gown of gold?
Oh, shining tree!
Oh, silver rivers of the soul!
In a whirling cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.
Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool,” in which she uses the word 'jazz,' is the same case.
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Those poems are very similar to the general ethnocentrism that still dominates black culture and whose only real competitor for significance is black ghetto-centric culture as heard in Trap or Drill music.
There is an inherent elegance to jazz. It seems to be an elegant way of laughing about the world and being nonchalant about spending one’s time. Jazz music has become much less relevant to black life and so has humor-filled elegance, except for in the subculture of a lot of young black women. Would the elegant cool of young black women, who seem to be able to laugh about the characters that surround them, be the secret to reviving jazz? It might be the case. However, if jazz is made popular again, this young male will be the first on that dance floor.
Emmanuel Adolf Alzuphar is a music and culture critic. He grew up in Haiti. He attended George Washington University. His Twitter handle is @alzuphar. He also writes...
Many podcasts have come to be and gained popularity as of late. But one that stands out from the rest is The Combat Jack Show. This podcast is hosted by Reggie Ossé – a Brooklyn native and former lawyer within the hip-hop business whose moniker as a personality is Combat Jack. Combat’s show has featured many co-hosts, including super producer Just Blaze. However, the co-host that remains to this day is Premium Pete – an enthusiast of sneakers, food and culture who leads various projects of his own. Together, Pete and Combat deliver the best interviews in hip-hop today. Combat’s experience working with artists and executives such as Jay-Z and Diddy helps him give fans keen insight into the music business. His personality and engagement with Hip-Hop since its infancy also help him draw much energy from every guest of the show. The Combat Jack Show is usually an entertaining listen, but its value is much more than good stories and laughs.
Combat’s podcast is centered around hip-hop. In some opening segments and episodes with guests such as Marc Lamont Hill and Jamilah Lemieux, he addresses issues of race in America, but hip-hop history remains the focus of the show. Several artists that are favorites of today’s generation, such as J. Cole and Rick Ross, have appeared on the show. Yet, Combat often uses his show as a platform for MCs, DJs, producers and executives with long-standing legacies or overlooked impact in hip-hop. From Chuck D to Kool Herc, Pete Rock to Red Alert, many episodes turn into history lessons you actually want to sit through. These stories explain how hip-hop has become the cultural force it is in America and the world at large. Furthermore, the guests, Pete and Combat document the relationship between hip-hop and the African-American experience in a way from which other black music genres could benefit.
In many of his interviews, Combat mentions how American media tends to treat black art and culture as if they are disposable. He fears that hip-hop will soon suffer from such treatment, having the racial significance of the music and culture forgotten due to corporate control. His concern is very reasonable given the history of black genres such as jazz and rock and roll. Through rock and roll, many black artists earned local hits and potential for great careers. However, their songs would often be covered by white singers, marketed to the predominantly white American audience, and celebrated without credit being given to the originators. This process caused the rise of Elvis Presley, one of the nation’s most revered stars ever, and the relative neglect of artists such as Chuck Barry and Muddy Waters. As pointed out by J. Cole recently, jazz’s suffering is summed up by the lack of black representation on the homepage for jazz on iTunes. The sight is hard to believe given the history of musicians such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis. One has to wonder if hip-hop will undergo the same shift in its racial representation.
One of Combat’s latest interviews drives home the message of the need for preservation. He spoke with Lloyd Price – a true pioneer in black music. In the episode, Price states that the 1952 song “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” made him the first black artist to sell 1 million copies of a single. This achievement of his and many others strengthened the link between music and racial advancement in America. Price was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years ago, but I and many other listeners of the episode were probably unaware of his work before the interview.
Such enlightenment has to be sought out and created within the black community. Awards shows and other mainstream platforms will simply continue the narrative of American culture that benefits from black innovation, but often doesn’t acknowledge black innovators. It’s difficult to prevent the imbalance of which racial identities reach the level of fame and success seen by artists such as Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus. However, people like Combat Jack help to bridge the gap between truth and public knowledge of hip-hop culture. Hopefully fans continue to learn from and support his work.
Follow Kenneth Hicks on Twitter @Ken_1193 and check out his website AllergicToHype.com.
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