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The Nina Simone weekend series, "Home Made Me" kicked off last night at the North Carolina Museum of Art. As the room buzzed with excitement and guests found their seats, Simone's version of "Here Comes the Sun" played overhead. Angela Thorpe, director of the African American Heritage Commission, and Carly Jones, music director of the North Carolina Arts Council, warmly welcomed us into the weekend with a call to celebrate and reimagine what home means to all of us. This entire weekend is centered around a theme of "home," specifically the home in Tryon, NC, where the "High Priestess of Soul" first unearthed her love of music. It's a community-centered effort to save and restore the home while coming together in community to celebrate its legacy.
The significance of the home's National Treasure status hit me hard when I realized the only other African American childhood home with National Treasure status in the nation is the Pauli Murray House in Durham. The magnitude of the event was elevated even more at the announcement of Lisa Simone's concert and the recognition of Lisa's godmother who joined last night's audience.
The dance performance group Slippage@Duke, led by Thomas F. DeFrantz, ushered us into the celebration with spoken word, dance, and interactive technology. Slippage@Duke's imperative is to "organize cultural events that help us all imagine how creativity and expression operate at the core of artistry, humanity, technology and social possibilities." After witnessing the performance, I can't imagine any other group moving to the creations of Nina Simone. I've never seen music and movement come through so equally together as if one sole entity, pulling out highlights of each as they tumble and mix together. I think this is what it feels like when souls touch: in this case, Nina Simone's, and the incomparable "Young, Gifted, and Black" dancers welcoming both Nina and Eunice (Nina Simone's given name) home to North Carolina. This electric and powerful tribute captured many facets of her life: Life before fame, life in the middle of fame, activism that ebbed and flowed among and between it all, and life in that little house in Tryon where wood and metal served as drum beats and the pure love of music first stirred.
Monèt Noelle Marshall is radiant and paints every color of all five senses into the air with her words. She brought Nina's spirit, the life in that home, and the heavy weight of a nation's history to our room all at once. Often she would weave between her own voice, the group's collective voice, and the voice of Black History in America, intertwining it all into the voice of Miss Simone. The dancing started with solos and often culminated with the whole group dancing their individual dances on stage, occasionally reacting to one another in pairs that begged the question of whether the dance was choreographed or improvised, or a little bit of both. Each dancer had a solo to a specific Nina song, with Quran Karriem's multimedia photos pulsating with color and remixed music as the backdrop. The incomparable Shireen Dickson led us through the song "Nobody," causing me to contemplate the sorrow and loneliness that weaved through Simone's life from childhood prodigy to fame, abuse, and years of living alone in Paris and Libya. Tristan Andrè Parks electrified the stage during his dance to "Mississippi Goddamn" while orange and red hues faded in and out of civil rights protest photo backdrops. Andrea Woods Valdès is one of the most captivating dancers I've ever seen. She expressed the music through her body in the most creative and soul-stirring ways whether exuding expressions of grief, joy, or comforting another. She embraced, blessed, and "cleansed" dancer Brittany Williams after Williams' chilling performance to Simone's version of "Strange Fruit." Williams by far shared the most important and powerful dance I've ever seen, and the realization of how much we need it still today is painfully summoned in Simone's words: "You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times."
Right before the intermission, the dancers joined the audience to celebrate in the aisles with the audience. The celebrations culminated when a joyous child decided to try out some dancing of her own, back and forth across the stage several times while Carly Jones and Angela Thorpe told us more about the weekend. It certainly set the energy for both a celebration and the dedicated movement to preserve Nina Simone's history in North Carolina.
The evening closed with a screening of "What Happened, Miss Simone?" (available on Netflix). The amount of Nina Simone's history and life that I didn't know about made me want to ask a similar question of "What Happened To Us?" that we haven't celebrated her more. The documentary is a deep dive not only into the life of Simone, but also the often hidden artistic movements and battles happening behind the scenes of the civil rights movement. It's also a reminder we need now. Art is the crucial home we return to in order to keep fighting, to keep moving forward and striving for a better world. It's the home we can return to whenever we need it. Seeing the film in the presence of a like-minded community made it far more impactful, and I'm relieved I didn't watch at home by myself. I strongly encourage you to gather with your friends and communities to see it ASAP.
For the main event, the NCMA amphitheater was warm and inviting as threatening storms moved out to make way for cooler temps and bright pink, orange, and blues hues painting the sky. As I moved my lawn seat over a few feet for a better view, award-winning actress, Grammy-nominated vocalist, and accomplished Broadway gem Lisa Simone casually walked out on stage in a bright, gemstone-toned turquoise outfit to join her big band, The Tribe Jazz Orchestra. The crowd applause and cheering grew and echoed across the lawn. For the rest of the evening, Simone made us feel like we were sitting on a front porch in North Carolina with all of our neighbors, family, and friends gathered around. She told stories before each song, creating a beautiful and powerful tribute to her mother. She made us feel like we were sitting on a front porch in North Carolina with all of our neighbors, family, and friends gathered around. She even described her mother's songs like they were her brothers and sisters. She told stories before each one, creating a beautiful and powerful tribute (to her mother) while simultaneously stepping out on her own. She wowed the audience with her stunning ability to belt, soften, and bluesify her voice for an entire song or highlight each tone in others. After a moving acoustic rendition of "Black Is the Color of my True Love's Hair," she said aloud, "I wonder what my mother would think? Children do have a way of softening us; I think she'd be proud."
Throughout the evening, Simone casually approached director Lenora Helm Hammonds to check on the setlist. After all, it's hard to rehearse regularly with your band when you fly in all the way from Paris for one night!
The crowd loved Simone's playful banter and casual, unceremonious style. It fostered a connection on a level that's rare during performances from artists as talented as Simone. She used every inch of the stage, and even ventured into the audience to serenade them right in from of their seats. She soaked up every ounce of energy and made the most of every minute. When the backup singers from the band came in and joined her belted, soulful notes, it added a punch of impact that moved the audience to a vocal response.
More than once, she charismatically drew the audience in for a playful call and response, and when her voice joined the saxophone player for a harmonized duet moment, some members of the crowd couldn't help but be moved out of their seats to stand in awe or dance. As the concert came to a close, Simone continued to impart wisdom about both growing from the past and continuing to make peace with yourself in the present and future. She danced across the stage, grooved in place, and then quietly sat down beside the pianist, becoming slightly overwhelmed with emotion. After a rousing performance of "Work Song" that featured "stop you in your tracks" trumpet and drum solos, Simone cried out, "Are ya'll havin' a good time? Me too!" Simone closed the night with the jazzy "Feeling Good" and drew the crowd to its feet not once, but twice. She spoke of her mother as a wonderful human being who contributed so much to this world before belting out the final "Feeling Good!" of the song. The audience rose for a standing ovation as Simone lingered, thanking the crowd with waves and bows. She took it all in and then slowly exited the stage.
She soon returned to speak a little about the Nina Simone Project and how her mother's legacy can live on in the present through the restoration of the childhood home. A few remarks about her own standing in the shoes of the great one who preceded her brought the evening to a close. As she walked away from the stage she told us, "My heart is full."
On Sunday afternoon, Lisa Simone gathered with a small, intimate crowd in a naturally-lit corner of the NCMA to "lead a conversation about her mother's legacy, her own life as a performing artist, and the critical responsibility of preserving African American culture." At least, that was the official event description. Of course, she did that – and so much more. It was actually her idea to have the conversation. She wanted to make herself available to the community and simply opened the floor for questions. For the next hour plus, she shared intimate details by answering any question that came her way about the life of her mother, her life as the child of famous parents, the wisdom and peace she's found today, how she got to where she is, and more. She told the young people present to identity what makes them happy as it creates positive energy that gives one the energy to make a better world. She referenced her own dedication to inspiring others both as the daughter of Nina Simone and as the woman she's become on her own. When a woman from Rutherfordton, NC, introduced herself and posed a question, Simone paused, smiled, and fought back tears while recalling how happy those times of her childhood were in North Carolina: "Do you see my smile right now?! That tells you how I feel about those days!" She closed with a reminder that we're all in this life together, encouraging us to talk to one another and to continue to have important conversations. It's these connections that bring the world back together in divisive times. At the end of the session, she shared an intimate moment from her personal meditation time from that morning. "The room was a sacred space full of imitate vulnerability, so I'm not telling it all here," she explained. But I will say: keep an eye out. I don't think you'll have to wait as long for her next appearance in North Carolina. She may live in Paris, but it's clear that a huge part of her heart is here.
I'm grateful and honored to have witnessed this conversation. Miss Simone, you are like coffee and cream with the best of the gravel-y realness mixed in (based on a quote by Lisa's mother, Nina Simone).
Note 1: Lisa Simone has a new single out called "Right Now" and her full length album is expected this fall.
Note 2: Proceeds from the weekend, which also included music master classes, benefit the rehabilitation of the Nina Simone childhood home. If you would like to learn more and contribute to the saving of the home, click here.