Jun 6, 2020


Producer Tracie Hunte stumbled into a duet between Nina Simone and the sounds of protest outside her apartment. Then she discovered a performance by Nina on April 7, 1968 - three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tracie talks about what Nina’s music, born during another time when our country was facing questions that seemed to have no answer, meant then and why it still resonates today.

 Listen to Nina's brother, Samuel Waymon, talk about that April 7th concert here.

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TRACIE HUNTE: Ooh, no, no. No, that's awful! I'm putting my headphones back in! [laughs]


JAD ABUMRAD: This week at a staff meeting, our producer Tracie Hunte told us a story. Really, it was the story of a moment from the weekend as the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd were really escalating.


TRACIE: Can you hear it through my headphones?


JAD: I just asked her to tell me that story again on tape.


JAD: Okay, so you were listening to a certain song.




JAD: What happened, exactly? Can you set the scene?


TRACIE: Yeah. Yeah, it was Saturday, and I had been feeling pretty sad all day, just feeling kind of grumpy. And I was like, "Okay. You know what? Self-care Saturday. Let's just take a really long, hot shower, wash your hair, smell good, feel good. And so I did all of that, you know, and I was just feeling very good physically for the first time in a while, actually. And I decided I was gonna play Nina Simone. I just typed in Nina Simone in Spotify and just let them just start, you know, picking songs for me, basically. I wasn't really being really specific. And I opened -- so I have a balcony in my apartment and I opened the door to let some air in, and I'm just instantly barraged with all this sound. This cacophony of police sirens, people chanting. And then all of a sudden in my room, the song that was playing was Backlash Blues by Nina Simone. And I was like, Whoa! What is going on?" Like, wow, this is a very weird sound experience right now.


JAD: What is that -- what is that song, just for people who don't know it?


TRACIE: So Backlash Blues, she actually wrote it with Langston Hughes, great Harlem Renaissance poet. He wrote the lyrics and she wrote the -- I guess the music. And -- and the song is just like ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: [singing] Who do you think I am?]


TRACIE: "Who do you think I am?"


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: [singing] Raise my taxes and freeze my wages, send my son to Vietnam.]


TRACIE: "You got me in second-class houses, second-class schools. Do you think all colored folks are just second-class fools? Mr. Backlash, I'm gonna leave you with the Backlash Blues.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: [singing] I'm gonna leave you with the blues, yes I am.]


JAD: Wow.


TRACIE: And I mean, other than the Vietnam reference it seemed really on the nose for right now.


JAD: Yeah.


TRACIE: Like, wow. Like, this is Nina Simone in 1967 singing this out in this, like, warning, a prediction or something.


JAD: Like, talking forward to us 50 years.


TRACIE: Yeah. And one big question over this week, and I think we're gonna have this question a lot is, like, everyone is like, "Why is this happening now?" And I'm like, literally this is why it's happening. This is -- it's right here. When things keep piling on, piling on, piling on, you know, there's gonna be a release. And -- and, you know, you look at the last couple months and it's just been pile on and pile on and pile on. It's Coronavirus, a virus that's killing mostly Black and brown people. It's, you know, unemployment. And then you have, like, three really horrific killings of black people in three months. It just felt like there was a building up of stuff, and it almost -- and it kind of made sense.


JAD: Yeah.


TRACIE: And so it was just a really bizarre moment. And then I listened to Sunday In Savannah. At the beginning of this recording she's saying something like ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: Glad to see you, and happily surprised that so many of you -- we really didn't expect anybody tonight.]


TRACIE: Oh, I'm so glad you guys came out tonight. I didn't know that you would, because of everything that happened. And I was like, "Wait. What happened?"


JAD: Huh.


TRACIE: And I did some Googling, and I found out that she performed three days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: [singing] One more Sunday in Savannah. Hear the whole creation shout and praise the Lord.]


TRACIE: And so she had dedicated the whole show to him. And ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: [singing] Everybody knows about Mississippi goddamn!]


TRACIE: She sings Mississippi Goddamn. And then there's, like, a couple moments in Mississippi Goddamn which also once again feel kind of prophetic. Like, this is a very angry song already, but then she kind of has, like, a moment where she's just kind of like has this kind of ad lib moment where she's saying ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: Good God, do you know? The king is dead. The King of love is dead. I ain't about to be non-violent, honey.]


TRACIE: We're not about to be non-violent. And there is something very -- I don't know if alarming or strange, or I don't know what the right word is. But there's something kind of amazing to think, like, these are the songs that she's singing for Martin Luther King, Jr. and she's saying yeah, let's get violent, you know?


JAD: Mm-hmm.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: [singing] What's gonna happen now in all of our cities? My people are rising. They're living ...]


TRACIE: And I should point out that, you know, when she was performing, several cities in the United States were burning because there were riots in reaction to Martin Luther King's death. She also ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: Last year, a year ago ...]


TRACIE: She has, like, a period where she just starts talking. And she's talking about other Black artists who've died ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: Coltrane left us. Otis Redding left us.]


TRACIE: ... in the last few years.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: You can go on. Do you realize how many we have lost? Then it really gets down to reality, doesn't it? Not a performance, not microphones and all that crap, but really something else. we lost a lot of them.]


TRACIE: Like, she's just -- and she even says, "I don't know how to feel anymore. I'm just so numb."


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: We can't afford any more losses. Oh, no. Oh, my God. They're shooting us down one by one. Don't forget that. Because they are. Killing us one by one.]


TRACIE: And hearing her say that? Like just, [sighs] they're shooting us one by one? Yeah, it's just -- I don't know. She's just so necessary. We just need her so much. And I just keep thinking, like, what would she be thinking about this moment? What would she have to say? And I don't know, she -- it feels like she already said it.


JAD: Yeah.


TRACIE: And I found this quote that she said. "How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist." And I know that, like, one thing we were thinking about doing is reaching out to musicians, finding out how they were reflecting the time. And I'm just gonna be having -- and I think even just in my work, I'm gonna be thinking about this challenge. How can you not reflect the time? That's what you're supposed to do.


JAD: Yeah.


TRACIE: And I -- you know, I kind of don't know if I'm up to it. [laughs]


JAD: Honestly, I -- you know, I think we're all feeling that from very different vantage points.


TRACIE: Yeah. I think we -- we all are. We're all feeling a little -- you know, I feel like every Black journalist has this -- whenever this happens, a lot of Black journalists, we get on our little -- in our group chats and we're like, "Is journalism really the thing we should be doing right now?"


JAD: Yeah.


TRACIE: "Is that gonna save us?" You know, like, we go into this profession knowing that, like, we're gonna be entering mostly white spaces, but we do it because we really believe in serving our community. And, you know, when moments like this come up, you -- you doubt it and you're just like, "Is this really -- what else should I be doing?" And I -- you know, I keep coming back to, like, I think I'm in the right place. I do, but I'm not sure. It's hard. It's really hard.


JAD: Yeah.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nina Simone: [singing] He had seen the mountaintop, and he knew he could not stop/Always living with the threat of death ahead/Folks, you'd better stop and think/How we're almost to the brink/What will happen, now that the king of love is dead?]


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