Interviewer: what does freedom mean to you?
Nina: Its just a feeling. It’s just a feeling. Its like how do you tell somebody how it feels to be in love. How are you gonna tell anybody who has not been in love how it feels to be in love. You cannot do it to save your life. You can describe things but you can’t tell them. But you know it when it happens. That’s what I mean by free. Ive had a couple times on stage when I really felt free and that’s something else. That’s really something else!
Ill tell you what freedom is to me NO FEAR! I mean really, no fear.
If I could have that, half of my life – no fear – lots of children have no fear. That’s the closest way, that’s the only way I can describe it. That’s not all of it, but it is something to really, REALLY FEEL! Like a new way of seeing! LIKE A NEW WAY OF SEEING SOMETHING.
When you live chained to a life not of your own making, when you are born into it from a system that permeates even your mothers womb, freedom is a new way of seeing. And one of the most disturbing things is that we have been so inoculated by our oppressors that we have come to accept these chains as freedom, some kind of gift of modernity. Many people, especially here within the United States, have been robbed of an understanding of what has come before and what stands in front of us. The potential of real liberation if we dare to trust ourselves and each other to really live and fight for each other. One of my favorite quotes from Assata Shakur’s biography Assata speaks to the power of consciousness and liberation,
‘the less you think about your oppression the more your tolerance for it grows. After awhile people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free you have to be accutely aware of being a slave.”
And to understand what it means to be a slave in this system you have to be shaken up and opened up as Nina describes in this interview featured below. This is the role of the revolutionary, the dreamer and artist. To open people up from this mental/physical slavery so that they may feel something. It is the feelings that humanize us. Humanizing ourselves is a revolutionary act, which reaches its highest potential when the people are in motion doing this work together through real struggle that can take down capitalism and patriarchy. But before we can reach such critical moments in history, the people need to understand this task and it has always been the militants and creators through out time and space that have inspired the people to do so. Have planted seeds in ones consciousness, emboldening them to act. To conquer fear and self doubt, which stifle our movement. To be free. Womyn like Assata Shakur and Nina Simone are two very important womyn who have done that; and they dedicated their lives to doing that, because they feel. They loved their people enough to want them to wake up. To fight for something greater. I will forever feel close to these womyn, because that is what they did for me.
I’ve been intending to blog about Nina for quite some time. It is her song ‘in the dark’ off of her 1967 album Nine Simone Sings the Blues, which provided the inspiration for the title of this very blog. I was introduced to Nina Simone at the tender age of 15 by my super cool older sister Elicia, who sent me a care package full of cd’s that she thought I might like: An eclectic bundle of Nina, Louis Armstrong, Bjork and Alice in Chains. Elicia is 11 years older than me and a brilliant and creative person. I did not spend a lot of my adolescence living with her, but I always had interesting books and music and intentional gifts to look forward too via mail. Alice in Chains doesn’t make it into the rotation anymore, but I took to Nina quite instantly. Her music was like nothing I had heard before; it’s blending of gospel, soul, classical, and the blues. I have grown to have a deeper appreciation for the dynamic complexities of her music over the years, but even at 15 when I didn’t always get it, I drew strength from the fact that Nina always did her own thang, despite being a black womyn from North Carolina.
I love the slowness of ‘In the dark’. I love the ways the harmonica fills the spaces between Nina’s vocals, which capture a moment and feeling that pulls you in. Nina wants you to feel the music; there are no formulas or stale emotions expressed through lyrical cliches. Her music is very intentional; cultivated by her spirit with the purpose of touching others. It is a total experience. That is where the power of art lies in the ability to move you; compel you to connect with yourself in ways denied by the system. Any artist must reckon with themselves if they are striving to move people. It is this honesty that appeals to people. Nina understands she is a force and she wants you to reckon with it. This is reflected in the opening track ‘Do I move you?’, written by Nina and sets the tone for whats to come. The back up band brought together many great blues musicians, but the music is pretty tame in comparison to the passion and life that Nina’s performance brings to the songs. Some of the tracks have very stripped down instrumentation to expose the raw emotion of the tracks and the stories they weave. I am a romantic daydreamer type so I gravitate towards art that reflects some of those feelings, which is why the romance of ‘In the dark’ touched me. The whole album is quite good though, and a necessary addition to your music library if you don’t already have it.
Along with the song i have also included this short excerpt from an interview, which was recently shared with me by my dear and talented friend Justin. I have had it on repeat for the past 24 hours. I simply can’t get enough of it: her words, the feelings, the expressions, and the intent. This video feels like medicine to my tired spirit. What I really love about this interview is the poetically direct way she captures the feeling of alienation in our society, and the work she does to transcend it and how it relates to our overall liberation. Beautifully spoken here,
‘Everybody is half dead. Everybody avoids everybody all over the place in most situations, most all the time. I know. I’m one of those everybody’s, and to me its terrible. So all I am trying to do all the time is just open people up so they can feel themselves and let themselves be open to somebody else. That is all. That is it.’
This work is so humanizing and therefore so radical. Many of us carry our wounds daily from the trauma of living within this system, and it prevents us from opening up and connecting with each other or doing right by each other. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the ways we are harmed by the system and the retaliation we direct at each other. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the levels of sectarianism that permeate the left; the gossip; the cliquishness; the competitiveness. I wonder about the future and I fear the doubts that creep into my thoughts. But then I watch this video and I feel Nina’s energy and I am reminded of the path I have set for myself and the path that has been set for me before I existed. When I was just an idea. And I find comfort and inspiration in that. I only hope you can too and that we can together. Enjoy.
Recently I have been thinking deeply about sexuality and the body and what it means to be a Black women living in Capitalist Amerikkka historically and into the present. Ive been thinking about how capitalism alienates us from our work and ourselves. Marx writes that labor should be the creative expression of ourselves and the development of our skills, but under commodity production it is this oppressive and exploitative process that we are forced into to survive. You can’t pay the bills, rent or eat if you don’t have a job giving you regular income to afford that. The fact that we are forced to work and do not have control or ownership over our work and what we produce results in us often being alienated from our work. In Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical manuscripts he characterizes the workers labor as an alien force that stands against her despite the fact that her labor is within the products she produces. He writes,
“Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another.”
Of course he is writing about the labor process within the factory, where workers spend hours all day producing commodities for the capitalist, not for themselves. Even though they spend a significant amount of time making these things that embody their human labor they do not own them, and thus are alienated, and ultimately exploited by them. This is a useful analysis to apply to women and our own relationship to our bodies, as well as the ruling-class’s relationship to our bodies. Like the commodities produced by human labor, we do not own or have autonomy over our bodies, and thus have been alienated by them. Our bodies have been sites of pleasure for men and the ruling class and have been used to develop a patriarchal capitalist system that devalues us while maintaining male power within the class as well as the bourgeois state. I think of the origins of the Black experience in this country, where women were oppressed as slave workers and breeders; forced to reproduce and live in constant terror of rape by the master. These particular experiences were a product of the racist, sexist division of labor within the plantation that also had corresponding racist and sexist ideologies that characterized Black women has hyper-sexual and loose. These ideologies justified the horrors they were forced to endure, and are our legacy today when Black women are still raped, our bodies are still commodified, and we are still verbally assaulted by the words ‘hoe’ and ‘chicken head.’ I know I am talking about the Black experience, but I think women of color in general, who share similar origins of colonization, can relate to such experiences.
I am in the process of writing a more in-depth marxist feminist analysis of my thoughts on alienation and gender that I will post soon, but I wanted to share some things now as I start to think of resistance to alienation, sexism and racism in the form of artistic expression. I have spoken before that the mere fact that people find time to produce art and use their labor as a way of creatively expressing themselves in a world that systematically denies you that, is some form of resistance. When you use that art to make social commentary about this world…now we are getting into something more dangerous, and I like that!
One artist who continues to inspire me as a Black woman artist is Renee Cox. Described on her websites bio as “one of the most controversial African-American artists working today.” Her bold and beautiful photography often features herself, and addresses a range of issues from racism, sexism, religion and the eurocentric fine art world, all the while reclaiming empowering images and representations of Blackness. I fell in love with her when I first saw her photographs. The first piece, featured below, that I ever looked at was her photograph River Queen from her series Nanny of the Maroons (2004)
Since I was a little girl I have been obsessed with Harriet Tubman, and her drive to liberate herself and her people. Even at the age of 6 I was impressed by her military-like operation and strategy to not only free herself, but as many slaves as possible. When I learned about the Maroon societies of escaped slaves and the active role women have played in those struggles and communities I was even more proud of my ancestry, especially the women, and its commitment to freedom fighting. These principles are expressed in this photograph and the entire series that features Cox in similar attire, confidently holding a machete-like knife that exudes strength. I love this photograph, because it represents this strong, black, woman warrior determined to free her people. It represents all the reasons why I fell in love with Harriet Tubman 20 years ago.
The photograph featured at the top of this post is called Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from her series called Raje, which was a part of her first one woman show in NYC. She is featured throughout the series as this Black woman superhero, and in this particular photograph she is saving Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from their incarceration within stereotypical, minstrel images that still continue to dominate in products and movies today. One image that has also stayed with me was her representation as Sarah Bartmann, aka Hott-En-Tot. Sarah Bartmann was a South African slave woman to the Dutch that was kidnapped by the colonizers and exhibited like an animal in Britain and other parts of the west. They made her undress and allowed people to examine her breast and behind. Cox is commentating on this type of colonization of the woman’s body that I get into above, and is obviously still an issue we face today. Cox’s pieces are very startling sometimes to the viewer and they are suppose to be that way; they should move you and make you think. Thinking isn’t encouraged too much in the society that we live in. Maybe that’s why her pieces are so controversial. One of her most controversial photographs was Yo Mama’s Last Supper. It was a remake of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, which featured Cox nude in the middle posing as Jesus Christ. The catholic church was outraged, and Mayor Guiliani even tried to have it censored, because it was ‘indecent’. Cox’s response was right on stating, “i have a right to reinterpret the last supper as Leonard da Vinci created the last summer with people who look like him. The hoopla and the fury is because im a black female. It’s about me having nothing to hide.”
I love the boldness in the way she photographs herself and her body. I have always been weary of myself being a subject in my art or anyone else’s art, whether it be film, photography, paintings, ect.,. I have always preferred to stay behind the scenes, and film and paint other people. Therefore, I admire the fearlessness of Cox’s photographs and the way she puts herself in the forefront of her pieces. It is true…she really has nothing to hide and that is quite dangerous to the racist sexist ruling class. This is why I love her so much; and the fact that she is another Black woman visual artist. I do lots of art, but have always been inspired by visual art, especially photography and film. I went to film school, and loved it, but it is rough not having other Black women artists, especially filmmakers and photographers, around you to draw support and community from. Although I have never met Cox I feel strength just knowing she is out there producing creative, beautiful and powerful art that seeks to challenge and empower. Please do yourself a favor and go to her website and check out her gallery. One of my favorite series is American Family. I love the way she photographs herself and expresses sexuality. Empowering, creative, and delicious. Another bold woman to celebrate!
Letta Mbulu (pronounced “let-ah” “em-boo-loo”) is a South African jazz and soul singer, who was born and raised in Soweto, but left for the United States in 1965, because of apartheid. You can find an excellent little biography of her here: http://www.dougpayne.com/lmbio.htm
She is an incredible artist with a voice that embodies the fire and spirit of women for me. The picture above represents such confidence and power. The photo is also the cover of her 2nd album Free Soul. I love that she chose to use a younger photo of herself in African clothing, despite the issues she was having getting radio play and record sales in the US. I was reading the blog I linked above, and it said that radio stations refused to play music from her first album because they were afraid “that no one would understand the words (the Bossa Nova and the British were as multi-cultural as American radio was willing to get back then). As a result, hardly anyone ever heard the record and, worse, sales were slight.” I imagined that it was incredibly difficult in the 1960′s as an African Woman artist in the US to make a living off of your art. That is why I love that her response was not too to adapt to US culture, and change herself and her art, but to produce another album of African music that also represented her as a beautiful African woman. The title of the album, Free Soul, also reflects that spirit of the fiery independence and creativity of women. Letta never got the mainstream success or recognition that she deserved, but that is often the case in this country when you stay true to your art and message.
Letta Mbulu is also important to me because my friend, sister, and comrade in struggle, Ms. Julia Wallace, introduced her to me. She played me Letta’s song “What’s Wrong With Groovin”, and I instantly fell in love with Letta’s voice, and the chills it sent down my spine. When Julia played it for me she said the song represented the soundtrack of her life, and that made me think deeply about the song, because I think Julia’s life reflects the strength, determination, creativity, passion, and love of a revolutionary woman. She has dealt with serious challenges in her life, yet has this beautiful spirit about her, and dedication to the people and struggle that inspires me everyday. The song is amazing and represents this beautiful force that I think embodies my comrade sister so I am internally thankful for her sharing it with me.
When I listen to ‘What’s Wrong With Groovin’ I feel this power radiating from Letta’s voice and the content of her lyrics that represents a woman trying to get free despite the restraints placed on us in this world. Her voice is so raw as she belts out the lyrics in such a fierce and wild way, yet she is in control. It is so unique and beautiful, but also a force.
I relate to it a lot as a woman, who, let’s just say, has been labelled aggressive or intimidating at times. I definitely have those traits, and a large part of it is due to the conditions I was raised in. I was forced to grow up early in order to survive, and in many ways that hardened me. I had to toughen up to protect myself from conditions within my home, as well as the objective conditions in the world I lived in, which isn’t kind to poor women of color like myself. I have always felt like there was this force within me that could be used positively and creatively, but I haven’t always known how to do that effectively. Often I would unleash this force in wild ways that had bull in a china shop effects with my interpersonal relationships. That said, I have been reflecting a lot over that the last year and trying to learn and grow as a woman and love this force within me, and also know how to use it for growth, inspiration and liberation. Letta’s music, and this song in particular, represents this journey and growth within myself; a journey that I share with the countless fiery women in this world who dare to survive and struggle, and produce amazing art that sustains us all.