Category Archives: Black Lives Matter

Women’s History Month: Nina Simone’s “Four Women”

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Lately, between Andresmusictalk and my own blog Dystopian Dance Party, I feel like I’ve been writing a lot about Nina Simone. Not that I’m complaining, of course. Simone is one of my all-time favorite artists: a bold and daring a performer who nevertheless carried herself with an imperious dignity that earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul.” And, especially in the late 1960s, her voice as a radical Black woman made vital contributions to the very culture that marginalized her.

Take, for example, her 1966 song “Four Women,” an emotional portrait of the manifold ways African American women have been oppressed throughout history. Over an ominous blues piano line, Simone lends subjectivity to four archetypal figures: the dark-skinned slave “Aunt Sarah,” the mulatto “Safronia,” the Jezebel/prostitute “Sweet Thing,” and finally the embittered militant “Peaches.” With her last verse, she declares that the rage at the heart of the Black Civil Rights movement is both inevitable and justified by the indignities of the past; “I’m awfully bitter these days,” she admits, “because my parents were slaves.” And in inhabiting these figures–widely perceived as negative, racist stereotypes–she gives them a sense of humanity and empathy that could not be found in the women’s movement of the time.

The place of Black women in feminism has of course been contested since the days of Sojourner Truth; it remains, unfortunately, an ongoing struggle, seen most recently in debates leading up to this January’s Women’s March on Washington. But with songs like “Four Women,” Nina Simone ensured that the uniqueness of Black women’s experiences were expressed, whether “mainstream” feminism chose to acknowledge them or not. And her music continues to resonate–as evidenced by the above cover version, performed by the Berklee College of Music chapter of Black Lives Matter. It is, as ever, sad that a song written about the plight of Black women in 1966 could remain so necessary over 50 years later; things being as they are, however, at least now we can be glad it exists.

Remember to check out Dystopian Dance Party next week for five more days of music by great women artists! See you soon.

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Filed under Berklee College Of Music, Black History, Black Lives Matter, black power, Blues, Nina Simone, pro black, vocal jazz, Women

Anataomy of THE Groove: “I Wanna Talk To You” by Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder’s musical artistry is completely effected by the 60’s social explosions. These changes in American society defined the baby boomer generation,of which Wonder was a member of. The 70’s emerged finding the civil rights and black power movements influencing that entire 60’s era counterculture. One issue,bought up again by Prince three decades later,was the idea of recording contracts as a form of artistic slavery. Wonder’s music had grown behind what Motown expected him to create. And just prior to his 21st birthday,Wonder decided to do as Curtis Mayfield had done and take control of his music.

This April 12th was the 45th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s album  Where I’m Coming From. This album represented a time when Wonder insisted his contract to Motown be voided until they worked out a deal that gave him full creative autonomy. The album featured a sound that represented the funk process,and Wonder’s use of it to advance his own musical independence. The themes of the songs dealt with anti war ideas ,drug abuse, racism and his new marriage to Syreeta Wright,who collaborated with him on the album. Today,one song on this album rings through my head very loudly: “I Wanna Talk To You”.

Wonder starts out the song with a down and dirty 12 bar blues piano solo straight out of the Ray Charles school of soul. He responds to this vocally on his refrain-just him and the piano. Than Stevie imitating an older voice comes in for the chorus,solo at first. During the rest of the chorus,layers of fuzzed out Clavinet and huge,percussive soul/jazz style drums come into play. After a few rounds of this literal refrain/choral conversation the music comes to an instrumental bridge. This extends into an elongated chorus of these reverbed,heavy groove keyboards until the song breaks apart lyrically and fades out.

Musically, Stevie Wonder is speaking the same musical language here as Sly & The Family Stone were with their Stand album from a couple years earlier. It brings in the raw R&B attitude out of the 50’s blues clubs and juke joints into the slick,churchy use of reverb and instrumental filters. This is what the funk process was all about. And by having fully realized the strong instrumental influence of the Ray Charles comparison that made his childhood career,Wonder was able to bring the then recent musical past into a new and evolving future. And right around the time Marvin Gaye put out What’s Going On at that.

On the lyrical end, I was inspired to write about this song was by seeing a meme that showed members of Black Lives Matter and saying “the most racist people are the ones crying ‘racist’ all the time’. This meme was posted to the Facebook timeline of a friend of mine whose not only gay,but works in a mental health facility. It got me to thinking that perhaps,racism is indeed a form of mental illness. It encourages irrational,murderous behavior. For years “I Wanna Talk To You” was presented in literature as being a song about the generation gap. In a way it is. But it actually goes far deep than that in content.

As it stands,the reason this occurrence inspired me to think of this songs lyrics is how Wonder plays it out. It’s essentially a one man show-style musical theater production,if one were based in straight up post WW2 black American attitude and funkiness. Wonder plays himself singing about the frustration of being black in America. He also plays the voice of an old Southern (most likely white) bigot who insists “my world can be true if you do what I tell you to”. At the end,it all breaks down when they character calls out “ah Stevie boy” and Wonder responds with “hey I don’t need you for nothin'”.

Stevie Wonder throws down an amazing ethic on this song. What amazes me is that Where I’m Coming From is the only one of his adult albums not domestically in print on physical media. In terms of this song in particular,it finds Wonder coming into rising adulthood at the dawn of the post civil rights era in America. Between the black American revolutionary music of funk and the message of organizations like the black panthers, Wonder completely realizes the connections between the two factors. And he plays out American’s racist default setting beautifully on this song with maximum soul and funkativity.

 

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, Black Lives Matter, blues funk, clavinet, drums, funk process, message songs, Motown, piano, racism, reverb, Stevie Wonder