I could write about Nina Simone all day long and never get tired. I could write about Nina, and other women like her, Dinah, Billie, Sarah, Carmen, Betty, Abbey and risk losing most of my sanctified readers. Yes, I love Mahalia. But when I was looking around for role models in those early years as a woman in ministry I looked to women like Nina and Dinah as my role models. I preferred stories about women who were not saints. As I said in a previous post about women singers:
Reading stories of women living out of their suitcases night after night, singing under sometimes impossible circumstances, expected by their audiences to bring down the house every time they sang despite whatever was going on in their personal lives, the sexism they faced in the music industry, the betrayal of managers and record companies who cheated them, living with the label of being “difficult” women when they spoke up and spoke out, the multiple marriages they had but never really finding true love, the solace many of them found in the after-hour meals with their band, all of this sounds familiar to me.
After living out of my suitcase for the last couple of weeks speaking here and there, trying to remember my lines and hoping, with God’s help, to live up to my part of the bargain and give audiences what they came looking for and needed desperately to hear, I stumbled on this video this morning of Nina sitting at the piano in a dark supper club under a lone light singing, sweating, and giving her audience what they came for without giving them more of herself than she could afford to spare. What I admire most about Nina is that she learned how to use her aura to her advantage. Her striking black African looks, her unconventional physicality, which were supposed to be her undoing, became her greatest assets. She made her audiences look at her, really look at a woman who looked like her, something they weren’t accustomed to doing without turning away, and notice the beauty. I like when women performers who don’t look like what women performers are supposed to look come out and make liars and bigots and idiots of their audiences– with talent that leaves audiences crying for more. Isn’t that what made the Susan Boyle video a Youtube hit?
I’m a sweat-er too. Always have been. Even before “the change”. LOL. So when Nina pauses in the middle of singing “If You Knew” to wipe her forehead with her hands–and looks around the set with an expression that says “why the freak doesn’t someone bring me a towel?” and continues on with the song as though the gesture and expression were part of the song — I smile knowingly. “Pay attention,” Nina says in the video. There’s something to be learned for you who aspire to be public speakers, orators, poets, preachers, teachers who stand everyday before a class full of students. A lesson in confidence, experience, and self-possession. Sweat and keep singing. Make the sweat work for you. Sing so that they remember the song and appreciate all the passion you put into delivering it.