Liz Garbus’s Netflix documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” makes one thing clear: Nina Simone suffered for the civil rights movement. She took the struggle into her body, and it propelled her across stages. Then it drained her dry back in her dressing rooms. It filled her with a euphoric sense of purpose, then left her rudderless and penniless in its wake. By the 1980s, she told an interviewer: “There aren’t any civil rights. There is no reason to sing those songs. Nothing is happening. There is no civil rights movement. Everybody’s gone.” She had seen many of the movement’s leaders die by then, including fellow outspoken artist Lorraine Hansberry. The efficacy of street-level agitation fizzled along with them. It seemed to have Simone’s hope and energy depleted in ways that could never be replenished.
It’s poignant and cautionary to watch the film now, as direct-action protest for racial justice is reaching a zenith. Leaders are emerging within the Black Lives Matter movement, including its hashtag’s co-creators Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi; activists DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta “Netta” Elzie; and the flagpole-scaling Bree Newsome. If Simone were still here, if she were well enough to perform, this would likely be her cohort. This would be the generation that would inspire her to reprise her protest set list.
Like Simone, these new leaders are absorbing every emotional tension and threat to bodily safety they face at the forefront of their protest movement. But there’s one key difference among Black Lives Matter activists: an emphasis on self-care. From Self-Care Cards shared online and distributed at protests to psychologists providing free crisis counseling to children traumatized by police occupation in Ferguson, Mo., or civic unrest in Baltimore, this generation seems more aware of the psychological toll that systemic racism and the fight to end it takes on activists, their families and their surrounding communities. They’re committed to making sure that everyone involved is taking the necessary physical and mental health measures they need to in order to remain well.
The artists involved in this movement are also better supported in their own self-care efforts and better equipped to provide care to others. When protesters converged on New York’s Lincoln Square last December to protest the ongoing militarized police presence in Ferguson, as well as the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department, singer John Legend and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, sent free food trucks so that protesters would be able to eat and stay hydrated. And just last weekend, Erykah Badu posted a free mixtape online titled, “Feel Better, World! … Love, Ms. Badu” along with the message:
ALL OVER THE GLOBE…KEEP WALKING TALL BROTHERS AND SISTERS. SOMEDAY WE WILL ALL BE FREE. THE WORLD IS IN NEED OF HEALING…. I CAREFULLY AND LOVINGLY SELECTED HIGH FREQUENCY TONES FOR THE SOUL…. PLEASE LISTEN FROM TOP TO BOTTOM.
LOVE, ms. badu
Badu’s painstakingly curated playlist opens with a track that chastens: Gary Bartz NTU Troop’s “Drinking Song,” which includes the lyrics, “Never will be a revolution/while you’re drinking wine./Never will see a revelation/while you’re drinking wine.” The mixtape also includes tracks by Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, as well as James Brown’s “King Heroin.” Mostly midtempo cuts, the list has strong thematic connections. These are all songs that call for accountability, like the Emotions’s “Watching Over” and the Bartz track; for meditation, like Michael White’s “The Blessing Song” and Ramp’s “Come Into Knowledge,”’ and for love, like the Stevie Wonder classic “Love’s in the Need of Love Today.”
It would’ve been just as easy to compile a track list designed to keep protesters righteously and justifiably indignant. But Badu is exercising her instincts here, and they’re telling her that everyone fighting for freedom and justice in the streets, behind screens and at pianos need sounds meant to soothe, music that compels us to heal, and lyrics that remind us how imperative it is for love and inner peace to temper our rage.
It would’ve been great for Simone to have been part of this movement. Her work would likely have been better received. Consider that just this year, the winner of Best Original Song at the Oscars was Common and John Legend’s “Glory,” which sought to pull a thread through time from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson. They would not have received such welcome reception without the groundwork of discomfort and agitation Simone laid when playing songs like “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” “Four Women” and “Old Jim Crow” to concert halls packed with predominantly white audiences. If only she’d lived long enough to witness the true depth of her impact.