Like Du Bois, Simone was an expatriate: When she died in 2003, after a long illness, she was living in Carry-le-Rouet, a small seaside town in the south of France, some 7,500 miles from the home in East Livingston Street where she was born 70 years earlier. Although she lived almost half of her life outside the United States – from Liberia to the Netherlands and beyond before settling in France – she remained forever involved in the cause of racial justice in America. Simone’s staying power comes from her art and her activism, as well as her activist art. Her biggest hits – ‘I Loves You, Porgy’, ‘Trouble in Mind’, ‘I Put a Spell on You’ – are ingenious reinventions of other people’s songs that struggle with love, loss and desire. But her most cherished recordings – “Four Women”, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, “Mississippi Goddam” – are original compositions that give voice to a rebellious black pride and defiance. It is these qualities, this complexity of vision, to which the four artists respond.
“I think the most interesting question is ‘why, why, why?'” Pendleton says. Why Nina? Why now? For him the answers are clear. “I’m interested in the questions that Nina Simone’s legacy raises. And these aren’t just questions about music; [they’re] questions about the avant-garde, about abstraction, about how artists talk to each other across generations and through time.” Pendleton, 38, whose work often incorporates layered language like a palimpsest, finds his artistic connection to Simone in a shared dedication to the complexity, sometimes indeterminacy, of voice. (Simone once said of her singing instrument, “Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”) Listening to recordings like “Sinnerman” or “Feeling Good” or “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead), ‘ which she performed in the days following the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., ‘requires a kind of deep listening, a kind of geometry of attention,’ Pendleton explains.
Fittingly, if unexpectedly, a group of visual artists – not musicians – came together to save Simone’s childhood home. They share common goals: that the home be preserved as a place of artistic creation and invention; that it supports aspiring artists, especially those following the path from which Simone was excluded, in classical performances and compositions. In the fashion of Simone’s classical compositional approach, the artists offer variations on these shared themes. Pendleton wonders if the house could function as a StoryCorps site, providing space for oral history and reflection. Mehretu, 51, thinks it can provide “a refuge and a space for development” for creative people. Johnson, perhaps inspired by his travels to Ghana, envisions it as a place of pilgrimage – in both the physical and virtual worlds. Leggs understands that all of these visions and more come together as part of the house’s lasting legacy, ensuring that Tryon, as Leggs puts it, “has a black future”.
The language of historic preservation — easements, adaptive reuse, stewardship planning — may not inspire much passion. But in the mouths of Leggs and the four artists, these words become incantations. Collectively, they understand that while Simone’s childhood home is a powerful symbol, it is also an ancient structure in need of upkeep and basic maintenance. It’s a contrast worthy of Simone herself, a singer of both show tunes and razor-sharp charges against racist duplicity, a loving freedom fighter and violent aggressor, a figure who tests our ability to grasp the challenging yet essential facets of our national history. Nearly two decades after her death, she continues to witness and live her life after life through the artists she inspires in the house where she was born.