Nina Simone is the grande doyenne of contradictions. The first lady of protest song for a decade, radical Meistersinger for the civil rights and antiwar movements, expatriate, she surfaced again recently -- and she hasn't changed a bit.
Here is Nina Simone on America: "I'm braver about this country. It doesn't intimidate me the way it used to. I'm drawn to this country by my loved ones -- my mother and my daughter."
Several minutes later: "This country is going down the tube. You're asking me what's wrong with your country, man? Nobody thinks anything of this country, nobody in the world. I love Khomeini. This ain't my country. I claim Africa. I'm not going to stay here and be an Aunt Jemima."
Here is Simone on black Americans: "Black people are afraid of this structure. I've been shown a great deal of love this trip. It's the first time it's happened. I haven't gotten a negative reaction. When I stayed away from the country I became more attractive. Ain't no black woman ever was anything in this country. I'm the only Nina Simone -- the only singer who talked about the system. I have 300 million fans. And the black people in Washington are the first who honored me on Human Kindness Day in 1974."
Several minutes later: "Black children here can't even read. They do nothing. . . . There's is no Afro-American culture. It's African, man!"
Suddenly sheets of rain fall in a tremendous thunderstorm and she shouts an old -- and very American -- black Protestant phrase: "Can I get a witness!"
Nina Simone is searching for her soul -- and a home. Absent from the musical limelight since 1974, the husky-voiced singer has forsaken living in America for Africa, Switzerland and the Carribean.
She burst onto the musical scene in 1959 with a torch version of "Porgy" that zoomed to the top of the popular charts. But she changed her musical style in 1963, when four young black girls were killed by a dynamite explosion at a church in Birmingham, Ala. Her focus shifted then to songs like "mississippi Goddamn," "Backlash Blues" and Revolution." Some of them she wrote herself. She can sing Jacques Brel as well as African folk songs, blues as well as Dylan.
One of eight children, she grew up in Tryon, N.C., as Eunice Waymon, She left as a 17-year-old for Philadelphia, where she studied privately. Later she moved on to julliard. In the 1960s and 1970s she was an angry and bitter symbol of the protest movement, carefully walking the tightrope between art and politics. And after her tumultuous ride on the music circuit, she left America for Barbados in 1972.
For now, however, Simone is back in the United States. She's scheduled to perform tonight at the Warner Theater in what will be her first Washington concert since 1973.
Simone says she's been bilked out of millions of dollars in royalties by record companies. "I came over here to see if I could live in this country again and to see if I could get some of my money," she said in a clipped West Indian accent while sitting in the coffee shop at Harambee House Hotel.
Dubbed by publicity agents as the "High Priestess of Soul," she wore a rich multicolored caftan with matching pants. She took a long drink of vodka and tonic.
Inside the mercurial star rages a volcanic array of emotions, extreme contrasts of lyrical tenderness and molten venom.
She has only seen her 17-year-old daughter, Lisa Celeste, once in the last 2 1/2 years. The child had accompanied her on a move to Africa, but couldn't adjust to the schools. First it was the American Peace Corps School that Lisa didn't like because she wasn't learning enough about Africa. Then it was an indigenous school in the hinterlands that Lisa thought was too African. So Simone moved to Switzerland and put her in school there. There Lisa suffered extreme culture shock and sank into depression.
In late 1977 she visited her father, Andy Stroud, a former policeman and once Somone's manager, in Hudson, N.Y. Simone says he kept her there, and their contact since then has been limited to one visit and phone calls.
"He's turned here against me," Simone shouted at the top of her voice in the coffee shop. "I didn't know he harbored such hatred for me. He told her I had abandoned her.
"I feel a sense of loss at not being with my daughter. I miss her. I love her. I miss my mother, too."
Several minutes later: "I can't stand teen-agers. Do you know what I mean? I can't stand being around my daughter. I can't be close to her emotionally. I may go to her [high school] graduation. She wants to see me this summer. But she needs some help.
"My mom doesn't like me. She loves me but doesn't like me. She's only been to two of my concerts in 20 years."
Though she came to the United States this trip after several months in Barbados and Trinidad, Simone has lived mainly in Geneva for the last two years.
"The Swiss treat me like gold," she said, now flashing a big smile. "It's the cleanest, most tranquil place I've ever found in the world. I'll never give up the Swiss."
The distant formality of the Swiss was new to her when she first moved there in 1977.
"They're not like Americans," she explained. "They have a natural formality.There's a shopkeeper in Geneva. We're good friends. But it was only after a year that we called each other by our first names.
"We opened a bottle of wine to celebrate the occasion. She told me she couldn't stand the Americans who'd come to her shop and start calling her by her first name after five minutes.
"I detest the vulgarity of Americans who think they can buy anything. Children act like that -- so open and innocent."
Before moving to Geneva, Simone lived two years in Monrovia, Liberia -- recently the scene of a bloody coup. "I miss Africa terribly," she laments. "Every time I think about Liberia I get sad. I was engaged at one time to Cecil Dennis Sr. [father of the recently executed foreign minister, Cecil Dennis Jr.]."
Still a regal figure, Simone has long been recognized as a pioneer of the resplendent African look among black American women. Nevertheless, she has scathing criticism for American beauty standards.
"I never got the Hollywood thing," she said, arching an eyebrow. "People never recognized me in airports. People like Diahann Carroll get designer clothes free. I was never on the cover of Ebony or Jet. They want white-looking women like Diana Ross -- light and bright.
"Black people are confused. They want braids. But they want to shake their hair.They want to be like Bo Derek. In africa they don't wear their braids hanging down their back. I'm talking about the sickness of this country. That's why I left here."
Who is this Nina Simone who is capricious and provocative, revered by some and jeered by others? She may not know herself. But she's looking for some answers.
In her quest, Simone took an apartment in Philadelphia eight weeks ago. She moved there on the advice of fans in Barbados and Trinidad who suggested that she "reclaim her birthright"; that she go back to the place of the first important turning point in her life.
"When I left North Carolina as a teen-ager I was turned down by Curtis [Institute] for a scholarship because I was black," she said. "I had originally trained as a classical pianist, you know."
To fill the gap, her townspeople in Tryon launched a fund drive so that she could study privately.
"I studied with Vladimir Sokoloff, who still teaches at Curtis," she rhapsodized in a pale Russian accent. "He was a great teacher. But I went into the business that changed my life -- show business.
"My fans thought if I went back to Curtis I might get a teaching job there. But the school's not what it used to be. Sokoloff is the only important teacher there."
She hopes her search takes her into new musical contours. However, for her two-show performance at the Warner, Simone said she'll be rehashing the songs that made her popular in the '60s and '70s.
"But I'm not about protest songs any more," she said sharply. "I want to perform with symphony orchestras and choirs. I want to play concertos."