Clay Cane is a New York City-based writer who is recognized for his contributions in journalism. Clay is a regular contributor for various print and online publications such as The Advocate and BET.com. He is the author of the highly anticipated novel Ball-Shaped World, which is a fictionalized account of the black and Latino ballroom scene. Also, he is the Entertainment Editor at BET.com and a member of New York Film Critics Online. He can be reached at claycane@gmail.com.


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    Monday, April 21, 2008

    Five years ago today Dr. Nina Simone, the High Priestess of Soul, lost her battle with breast cancer. She was the last of the remaining protest singers, closing an era of black artists who took responsibility for their music and felt that art had a place in changing the world. Nina would've been 75 today.

    Nina was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina. Daughter of a preacher and barber, she was a piano prodigy, having learned as a child and would go onto impress blacks and whites in her local town. Her first encounters with racism as a girl in the Jim Crow South would shape her political beliefs for a lifetime.

    Nina would travel from Philadelphia to New York City, eventually studying at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. She performed in small, dingy clubs, playing a variety of music, soon changing her name to “Nina Simone” because she didn't want her family to know she was performing secular music. In 1958 Nina's first album was released and she would score her only top 40 hit with "I Loves You Porgy". A star, activist and icon was born.

    As Nina's star rose so did her consciousness. She would befriend the likes of Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin (she obviously loved the gays!). In addition, she penned legendary protest songs like "Four Women", "Young, Gifted and Black" and of course "Mississippi Goddamn"—funny how so many conservatives were all shook up over Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s “Goddamn America” line (Wright was born eight years after Nina) … I hope Senator Barack Obama never says he is a Nina Simone fan!

    Nina was known to be a "diva" even before the term was popular. She hated that she was labeled a jazz singer, which she insisted was racist—Nina was a classical pianist and felt she was only labeled jazz because she was black.

    Furthermore, she was angered that she was ever compared to Billie Holiday and very vocal about it. As early as 1997, she said in a Details magazine interview, "She was a drug addict! I'm more of a diva, like Maria Callas." Callas was classical opera singer and pianist.

    Nina was known to stomp off stage if she was unhappy and she would normally not allow audiences to clap during her performances, especially in her early years of fame. She once walked off the stage of the Apollo Theater in Harlem because of crowd participation... see, in classical music the applause is saved for the end.

    After the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nina, like many others famous black Americans, left America. She spent time in Liberia, but would eventually settle in Paris. She was disgusted at American racism, but would have a resurgence of popularity in the late eighties and nineties with her songs used for commercials and soundtracks.

    Nina’s legacy still lives on. Her daughter, Simone, is releasing an album of Nina covers titled Simone On Simone on May 13th. The summer of 2003, I saw Simone perform a rendition of “Little Girl Blue” and “Summer Time” at a Janis Joplin tribute concert, only months after her mother’s death. It was riveting and there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience.

    I wonder what Nina would think about the 2008 election. She would’ve never imagined only five years after her death a viable black candidate would be so close to the presidency... a primary tomorrow in Pennsylvania where she was once rejected from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia only because she was black... a primary in her home state of North Carolina on May 6th, that Obama will more than likely win, where she was once terrorized with racism.

    Nina was soulful without over-singing. Commanding but not overpowering. Genius but tangible. She was everything an artist should be and everything many of our black artists aren’t today. Pay homage to the High Priestess!

    “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me—no fear! If I could have that half of my life—no fear! That's the only way I can describe it, that's not all of it, but it's something to really feel.” – Nina Simone, 1972

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    Posted by Clay :: 12:00 AM :: 7 comments

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