Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston.
Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery.
The years pass and the names of the cities change, but 50 years later, the very real sense that black bodies are under attack again is as inescapable as those #BlackLivesMatter hashtags. But while desperate times call for fearless artists, these days, musicians willing to tell the truth and risk putting their follower counts in jeopardy are in short supply. What that means is that while your favorite YouTube stars can rap all the words to "Trap Queen," few if any could probably spit the first verse of Kendrick's "King Kunta."
Yeah, it pays to be Fetty Wap but it takes courage to be K.Dot. I came to understand this profoundly while watching the searing new documentary "What Happened, Miss Simone?" which premieres today (June 26) on Netflix and retraces the highs and lows of the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone. "I chose to reflect the times in which I find myself -- how can you be an artist and not do that?" the singer/songwriter says at one point, reflecting on her musical output during the Civil Rights era.
Simone paid a hefty price though for being vocal on and offstage about the oppression of black folk and America's systemic racism. She acknowledges as much in the Liz Garbus-directed doc's most touching moments. Promoters were scared to book her but she felt compelled to keep fighting for liberation. At home, she faced a battle of a different kind: husband and manager Andrew Stroud, who appears in the film, was physically abusive -- pushing a wildly gifted woman with undiagnosed mental illness to her limits. Still, history, aided by docs like this one, has a way of sorting out legacies.
Before you watch the very necessary "Miss Simone" in full on Netflix, here are just a few more highlights to look out for:
Nina Sings For The Young, Gifted And Black
During a performance for college kids at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, Nina looks out on the crowd of beaming black faces with their afro halos and tells them she knows their numbers on campus are few but she wants them to feel pride in themselves. She dedicates "To Be Young Gifted and Black" to them. (Above, at the Harlem Cultural Festival, circa 1960s.)
You Won't Be Able To Avoid Making Comparisons To Lauryn Hill
Fans of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill star may recognize some eerie similarities here. Like Hill, Simone could caress on love songs like "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" but she could also breathe fire with tracks like "Four Women." Being black, female and in possession of a certain genius can be a burden, we learn.
Miss Simone, The Fashion Killa
Anyone familiar with semiotics knows how powerful a symbol can be, even when it comes to adornment. With the activist 1960s under way, Simone's wigs and falls gave way to a natural crop that showed off her African features and increasingly stepped out onstage in garments that called the continent to mind. Look out for the singer's elaborate braided 'dos and headdresses.
"What Happened, Miss Simone?" is streaming now on Netflix.