The Artist and The Revolution II: Nina Simone

To create art in the service of life. My earliest memories of Nina are of my mother wrapping her head with kente cloth in the bathroom. In those days I didn’t like the sound of Nina, her voice put me off, it didn’t sound like EnVogue. Her lack of smooth vocals put her in the back of my mind.

In college, I found her again. She was tucked away in a series of clips from the civil rights movement. “I would have been a murderer” she boldly stated, later saying that she would go to the south and exchange bullet for bullet with the fascist white power structure. “Who is this womyn?” I thought. And then I heard this:

Never had I heard such passion. Never have I heard such a distinct sadness. Never had I heard someone reach though speakers and command that I listen. Command that I feel their profound emotion. In the service of the people, Nina travelled and played protest songs during the Civil Rights movement, including the anthem “Young Gifted & Black”. She represents a large portion of the Black population that lived under the threat of death in this country as they fought for freedom. At the same time, Nina is free. She lived as she sang. She lived a life of heartache, pride, disease, misery, joy, laughter, and contradiction and she lived it boldly. I see her as a jubilant womyn, someone who achieved a certain kind of clarity of spirit and freedom within the poisonous world we live in.

When I hear Nina sing I imagine Black children in fields running into and endless light, I see Harlem in the 1920’s, I feel my Grandfather’s breath graze my ear as he tells me stories of growing up in South Carolina in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. I feel connected to this vast history of Black life and struggle, to this search for liberation and I am saddened to think on the history of my people and others out at sea searching desperately for port. She means that much to me.

Carl Van Vetchen

The photography of Carl Van Vetchen is a mainstay of the Harlem Renaissance. Here are some of the images of this legendary man. He capture many Black and Queer legends in their prime and throughout their life. His portraits give us a sense of the artist in their full eccentricities.

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