In June 1954, Eunice Kathleen Waymon performed on an Atlantic City stage for the first time under the name Nina Simone. This performative self-creation is mirrored in the structure and lyrical content of one of her best-known songs, “Four Women,” in which each verse features Simone singing as a different woman. By examining the similarities between the varying accounts of Waymon’s transformation into Simone, and by conducting a close reading of Simone’s performances of “Four Women,” it is possible to understand Simone’s song as challenging representational politics by pluralizing identities.
This strategic decision was underscored when the rapper Talib Kweli and DJ Hi Tek recreated “Four Women” as “For Women” on their 2000 record Reflection Eternal. “For Women” reproduces the structure and message of Simone’s original. Mimicking the logic of self-creation that Simone embodied both in her life and in “Four Women,” Kweli and Hi-Tek craft a song where Kweli transitions, often mid-verse, between rapping about each of these four women in the third person and taking on the first-person perspective of each woman. Understanding these two examples together illustrates the power and legacy of “Four Women” and its critique of representational politics and of the rigidity of unique subject positions.
In 2000, the hip-hop duo Talib Kweli and DJ Hi Tek, as Reflection Eternal, released Train of Thought, the first and only album they would produce together. The album’s final track, “For Women.” is a reformulation of the Nina Simone song “Four Women,” which Simone first released in 1966. Taken at face value, Kweli and Hi Tek seem to be performing a simple tribute to Simone and her work while also connecting themselves to her artistic and political legacy. What complicates such a reading are the moments in Kweli’s performance when, mirroring Simone’s original song, he performs as the women in the song. While brief, such moments connect back to the album’s larger structure and emphasizes how Kweli and Hi Tek have sampled something more than just sonic material from Nina Simone. Kweli’s “For Women,” like Simone’s “Four Women,” makes a claim for understanding identity as plural and fluid, challenging the liberal political demand that subjects clearly articulate themselves as concrete and coherent individuals. Simone, both in her performances and in her private life, repeatedly emphasized the importance of challenging such claims by modeling a politics of plurality in favor of a politics of representation. This is the legacy that Kweli and Hi Tek attached themselves to by producing Train of Thought.
There has been recent critical interest in examining Simone’s influence over contemporary hip-hop production and the legacy both of her music and her political commitments. For instance, Daphne A. Brooks’s 2011 “Nina Simone’s Triple Play” focuses on the ways in which Simone challenged the conventions of black popular music to satirize the limitations placed on black artists and on black bodies as a means of rejecting such limitations. Salamishah Tillet examines how contemporary male hip-hop artists have traded on the political and cultural currency of Simone’s work either to validate themselves as politically engaged or without any regard for the political claims being made in her work in “Strange Sampling: Nina Simone and Her Hip-Hop Children” from 2014. What neither Brooks nor Tillet emphasizes is how Simone’s aesthetic and performative attempts to challenge social and political conventions might also be influencing contemporary hip-hop artists, such as Kweli and Hi Tek.
Tillet’s article engages with the different ways contemporary hip-hop artists have sampled and invoked Simone and her music. She touches on Kweli’s work, but mainly as a way of relating Kweli to Kanye West, especially because of the popularity of the 2002 Kweli song “Get By,” produced by West, which prominently features a sample of Simone’s iconic performance of “Sinnerman.” Tillet notes that, “[Kweli] recognizes [Simone] as a model against which he can stave off career-long criticisms about the unusual timbre and texture of his own voice, on the one hand, and his lyrics and production as overly political and not upbeat enough, on the other.”1 This places Kweli in stark contrast to West, primarily in West’s sampling of Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” on his 2013 song “Blood on the Leaves,” in which, as Tillet writes, “the image of a lynched black body is now an unwanted fetus,” which is further troubled because “West’s lyrics are not a politics of allegiance with the women’s rights movement but an ongoing animus targeted at sexually aggressive women, particularly those who are his peers or potential lovers.”2 Tillet’s challenge of West’s articulation of Simone’s song lays out one of the significant challenges facing sample-based hip-hop producers. They can use samples to help recreate the original content, meaning, or emotion of their source materials or they can wrench them from their original context and treat them as if said context was immaterial.
What is interesting but unexplored by Tillet is the way “For Women” avoids this issue. Kweli and Hi Tek do not sample directly from Simone’s song, but instead, following the logic of sampling, they mine a recorded version of Simone’s “Four Women” for its content and context to produce their own version of the song both as a testament to their connection to Simone’s musical and political legacy and as an attempt to engage with the ways in which, as Brooks puts it, “Simone’s social activism was not only overtly incorporated into the content of her material, but, just as well, that it permeated the form of her musical heterogeneity that worked to free African Americans from cultural and representational stasis.”3 Brooks argues that Simone is challenging “narrow definitions of black sound” by transitioning between different genres, styles, and forms of music in a manner confounding to “the cultural myopia of critics too obtuse to read the aesthetic range and complexities of her material.”4 Of course, a musical catalog as varied as Simone’s lends itself to being sampled by artists that draw from a wide variety of musical sources, but Kweli and Hi Tek engage with this issue not only on the level of studio production. Kweli and Hi Tek, throughout their album and significantly in “For Women” challenge the ways in which black artists and black bodies are forced to rigidly and concretely identify themselves to become politically legible to the contemporary liberal state. They do not affirm the importance of succeeding by adhering to a politics of representation that demands that black voices clearly articulate and identify themselves to engage in political discourse, or to “keep it real” for their audience and other artists. Kweli and Hi Tek’s Train of Thought rejects such a demand for legibility, instead calling for a politics of plurality that undermines the authority and stability of structures built on a politics of representation. It is necessary to begin with the ways Simone chooses to narrate her own life, including in interviews, during performances, and in her co-authored 1992 autobiography. Kweli and Hi Tek’s project was born out of Nina Simone’s choices to represent her politics, her performances, and her music or, in their words, “Reflection Eternal would like to thank: Nina Simone for the inspiration.”5
On 21 February 1933, John Divine Waymon and the Reverend Mary Kate Waymon’s sixth child arrived in the world, a baby girl born in the small town of Tryon, North Carolina. They named her Eunice Kathleen Waymon, and she is the first woman in this story.6 Eunice Kathleen Waymon became Nina Simone, but the transformation from Eunice Kathleen Waymon to Nina Simone misses how important it is that first there was Eunice. Before she became Nina Simone, Waymon was a piano prodigy, raised on performing in the church, and classically trained at the behest of a white woman who employed Waymon’s mother.7 Waymon finished high school in North Carolina, and moved to New York City to study at Julliard, but she dreamed of attending the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In 1951, Eunice auditioned there and, despite thinking it went well, her admission was rejected. She would become “convinced that an unknown black girl from a small Southern town never had a chance.”8 It was both Waymon’s race and her connection to Tryon that shaped her life. Nina Simone went on to live in various places around the world until her death in 2003, but she never hid her relationship to Tryon.9 Although this marked Eunice Waymon as unacceptable for the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, she never removed Tryon as the necessary origin of both Eunice Waymon and Nina Simone.
In June 1954 Eunice Waymon went to Atlantic City, New Jersey and met Harry Stewart, the owner of the Midtown Bar and Grill. Later that night, Nina Simone appeared on stage for the first time. The story of this performance is told several different times and in several different ways. These are synthesized by Nadine Cohodas in her biography of Nina Simone:
“She’d always like ‘Nina,’” Carrol [Waymon, Eunice’s older brother] explained, noting that Niña was Spanish for little girl.
Fine, Stewart said. But what about the last name? “Simone,” she said without hesitation.
The two names together suggested a certain panache. And when pronounced with a Latin flavor, they sounded vaguely foreign: “Nee-na . . . See-mone.” “I choose the name Nina because I had always been called Nina—meaning little one—as a child,” she told the Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin in 1960, though neither Carrol nor her older siblings had any recollection of the nickname. In a different interview the same year with the magazine Rogue she said “Nina” was adapted from a boyfriend who called her Niña. “I don’t know where the hell I got Simone from.” When she published her memoir in 1991, Nina said that “Simone” came from her appreciation of the French film star Simone Signoret. Variations on the theme, “Nina Simone” felt right as soon as Eunice put the two names together.”10
Already, at the origin of Nina Simone, there is a collection of people present. The name Nina Simone takes on different meanings that are repurposed to fit a present need. It was the nickname given to her by an old boyfriend, a reference to a French film star, a reminder of her childhood, or just a simple whim, born of a momentary flash of inspiration. These stories are tactical responses to questions about her origin that she mobilized to intervene in different ways, at different moments, to obscure or disclose herself.11
The use of stage names is not an uncommon artistic practice, but Simone was more than a stage name as Eunice Waymon became both Waymon and Simone, at different times and in different places, and in so doing she gave herself a pluralized identity. Simone’s daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud, recounts that “Mommy could intimidate people by not even opening her mouth. I told her once, ‘The warrior in you, that’s Nina. But put down your buckler and spear and let Eunice come forth for a little while.’ She looked at me like she was considering it. She didn’t curse me out.”12 What is at stake in the creation of Nina Simone is not simply a stage name. Instead, Eunice Waymon became another person, one that also occupied her body, one that pluralized her identity. As her daughter makes clear, it was not simply the case that Nina Simone existed on stage, and Eunice Waymon lived behind the scenes, but that the woman who was Eunice Waymon was also, always Nina Simone, a single individual made plural.13
In transitioning from the private individual into a public performer, Waymon had to become Nina Simone. She remembers that she was afraid of seeing “a sign on the street saying ‘Playing Tonight: Eunice Waymon,’” so she had to reinvent herself, or as she puts it, “So there it was, Nina Simone.”14 Simone articulates her name as simply a thing in the world, or to use her words “it” is an “it” that was just “there,” but this obscures the tactical decision she made in changing her name. There was no singular, stable Eunice Kathleen Waymon that could be replaced by Nina Simone, she was already several different people—the good daughter, the churchgoer, the music teacher, and the black woman, to name a few—none of which are fixed to specific biographical details. To put it another way, Waymon was already aware that she did not have a single, fixed identity as she was creating Nina Simone, which was yet another identity that she could and would need to perform. This experience of a pluralized identity is mirrored in the structure and the content of her song “Four Women.”
“Four Women” is among Nina Simone’s most well-known songs. She recorded it in 1964, but it was not released until 1966 on the album Wild is the Wind. Understanding the political significance of Simone’s song requires considering her transition from the performer who first appeared on stage at the Midtown Bar and Grill, to her life as a popular recording star capable of writing, performing, and recording protest music.
After her 1954 performance, Simone continued performing, mostly in Atlantic City, and in 1957 Bethlehem Records released her first album Little Girl Blue, making Simone an almost overnight success on the national R&B charts. Her second record, 1959’s The Amazing Nina Simone propelled her further into stardom. As David Brun-Lambert puts it, “Neither promoters nor the public could get enough of the black pianist; people would smother her in praise as they discussed her style, her choice in repertoire veering alternatively towards folk, classical music, and Broadway tunes.”15 Her trajectory continued upward, while her music remained largely apolitical, which the people around her noticed and challenged her to address, including Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, such that, “a political awareness seeped into me without my having even to think about it.”16 Simone’s social world was affecting her thoughts, but her commercial appeal was tied to her apolitical repertoire. Nonetheless, Simone was unable to avoid confronting the world around her, a change that she attributes to her friendship with Lorraine Hansberry.
Hansberry, perhaps best known for writing A Raisin in the Sun, emphasized to Simone the need to become politically engaged. As Simone remembers, “She understood that I felt separated from what was going on, but told me over and over that like it or not I was involved in the struggle by the fact of being black—it made no difference whether I admitted it or not, the fact was still true.”17 Hansberry died at the age of thirty-four, leaving Simone to confront the realities of race and gender in America without her friend. As Simone recounts, “Lorraine started off my political education, and through her I started thinking about myself as a black person in a country run by white people and a woman in a world run by men.”18 This is a significant part of how Simone frames the changes that would occur in her musical output. As Simone emphasizes in the above passages, Hansberry made it clear to her that no matter how well she performed or how many records she sold, Simone’s work was already political because it was her black body and black voice that was being used to sell those records.
While Hansberry influenced Simone’s relationship to her work, the event that Simone posits as the catalyst of her political engagement as a performer occurred on 15 September 1963, when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama. Just three months after Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi, was killed in front of his own house, Simone remembers sitting in her house listening to the radio, “The bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers were like the final pieces of a jigsaw [puzzle] that made no sense until you had fitted the whole thing together. I suddenly realized what it was to be black in America in 1963 . . . it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination. In church language, the Truth entered into me and I ‘came through.’”19 Her husband and manager, Andrew Stroud, came home to find Simone enraged. She was trying to make a zip gun, ready to go out and kill someone. Stroud replied that she had no idea how to kill anyone, but she had her music. Simone’s response was more potent than any zip gun, it was “Mississippi Goddam.”
“Mississippi Goddam” marks a turning point for Simone, not only because it is the first explicitly political song she wrote, but also because it marks her solution to a specific artistic challenge. As she remembers, “Until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me I had musical problems as well: how can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune?”20 Unlike in her own life, where Simone could shift her identity as necessary, writing a song about someone was part of a project of fixing them in space and time. With that in mind, how could one do justice to the life of another person? Simone’s answer was to remember that other people were also performing their identities, and her celebration of this social necessity is also apparent in her narration of the lives of Aunt Sarah, Sephronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches in “Four Women.”
The critical discourse on “Four Women” focuses on the politics of representation, ignoring the possibility that the song’s structure might be gesturing toward an imaginative, non-representational politics. For example, Melanie Bratcher notes that Simone’s lyrics are descriptive of a certain kind of lived experience. She writes that, “The spirit of the source of the song came from Simone’s self-criticism of her looks and from her criticism of her husband, Andy Stroud. She recalled moments when she felt unattractive because she also reflected on the fact that her husband never really affirmed her beauty.”21 Bratcher reads the song as an instance of self-representation focused on Simone’s feelings about her own appearance and her relationship with her husband. Similarly, David Brun-Lambert claims that “‘Four Women’ was a confession, an autobiographical summary of Nina Simone’s experience and she couldn’t be doing with any appropriation, criticism or censorship.”22 Here, too, “Four Women” is an autobiographical account of Simone’s life. These critics assert that “Four Women” represents Simone’s own experience of black femininity. This can be contrasted with Joel Siegel’s interpretation, which Hampton and Nathan recount as “‘brief, incisive portraits reflecting the experiences and generational perspectives of a variegated quartet of black women’ and certainly Nina’s simple yet stark vignettes left no one in any doubt that she had encountered each type of woman during her life.”23 In this interpretation, the women become composites of people that Simone has met, and therefore the song is an attempt to capture the communal experience of African American femininity.
Further interpretations of “Four Women” make even broader claims about its representational politics. Nadine Cohodas argues that “it compressed two centuries of black history into four compact verses, as if she was turning in a final class paper in song . . . Each verse described a woman who was an archetype of an era: Aunt Sarah, the mammy; Sephronia, the light-skinned mulatto; Sweet Thing, the young prostitute; and Peaches, a surly street tough.”24 The song represents all black history, told through four characters. These women are iconic, defining different epochs in black history. This reading may give one pause, since it posits an era defined by “Sweet Thing, the young prostitute.” Still, Cohodas’s interpretation, like Bratcher’s or Siegel’s, focuses on the representational aspects of the song. A slightly different reading is offered by Phyl Garland in her introductory text to an interview with Simone. She asserts that “each one of its four concise verses is a complete chapter of our history and our peculiar psychological reactions to it.”25 While this echoes Cohodas’s account, Garland points to another effect of the song: that the audience is moved by the music. This is accomplished because Simone’s song condenses the complete history and experiences of black women into four verses.
Simone’s own interpretation of “Four Women,” included in her autobiography, is that “all the song did was to tell what entered the minds of most black women in America when they thought about themselves: their complexions, their hair—straight, kinky, natural, which?—and what other women thought of them.”26 Simone agrees with her critics that this song provides a range of possible representations of black femininity and that it exposes the fundamental instability and uncertainty of the black, female identity in the U.S. Unable to assert her beauty or to describe how she wanted to be understood, Simone articulated her frustration, which she felt was common to all black women. Simone’s exegesis of the song remains firmly rooted in a politics of representation, but her song offers the possibility of being understood as presenting a different option, a politics of plurality.
When critics read Simone’s performance in “Four Women” through the lens of representation, they assume that Simone is either describing concrete people existing in the world or that she is revealing parts of herself thinly veiled as the characters in the song. There is, however, no reason to read this song in such a literal fashion, especially considering how Simone performed her own identity as a fluidly shifting construction in her public and private life. Instead of trying to find an indexical relationship between the women Simone performs and women in the world, it is more productive to think about how “Four Women” challenges the ways in which we are made to assume the existence and importance of such stable identity claims. The women in this song need not be static, fixed characters, incapable of producing social or political change. Imagining these women as different identities performed by Simone, ones that she can inhabit and move on from, opens the possibility of understanding identity not as stable, simple, or legible, but as complicated, fluid, and responsive.
The version of “Four Women” that first appears on Wild Is the Wind begins with Simone playing the piano accompanied, almost from the start of the song, by Bobby Hamilton on the drums and Lisle Atkinson on the bass. The recording also features guitar, played by Rudy Stevenson, but mostly these instruments take a backseat to the repeated phrases Simone plays on the piano and to her voice as she relates the stories of the song’s four women.27 Each verse of the song relies on a similar lyrical structure, beginning with Simone, as one of the women, relating the way she, and those around her, perceive the color of her skin and physical characteristics, including her hair, the shape of her body, and her disposition. Simone is measured in these descriptions, emphasizing the specificity of each of these women’s bodies and lived experiences. Significantly, Simone does not alter the tone or timbre of her singing voice to affect different personalities for each woman, but instead presents them to her listener as if they shared a single voice, except for the final woman: Peaches, whose verse builds to an emotional crescendo of anger and defiance, both lyrically and musically. Simone’s decision to not significantly alter the sound of her voice to indicate the transition from woman to woman is likely one of the reasons critics posit that these women either represent Simone or the historical trajectory of the African American female experience.
None of the verses in the original recording of “Four Women” are lengthy, and yet each provides enough information about these women to vividly paint their portraits. When Simone sings as each of these women, she points to the differences of their experiences and the similarities of their pain. These women are not abstract, each description is grounded in the women’s bodies. The strength of Aunt Sarah’s back or the suggestive hips of Sweet Thing are not just references to archetypal women, they are a reminder of real, physical bodies that are often erased or overlooked by official histories, popular cultural trends, or political movements. In performing and recording this song, Simone gave these women life. That is not to say that Simone had been these women or would always be these women, but that she recognized the possibility that she could be these women, in song and as a performer, even if only for a moment.
The significance of Simone becoming the women in her song is best explained not by listening to a recording of the song, but by considering Simone as a performer. As Phyl Garland points out about Simone’s performances, “Her songs are not sung but enacted through facial and bodily expressions, and when her exaltation can no longer be contained she jumps up from the piano and moves rhythmically about the stage in a nameless dance of joy.”28 These actions not only testify to Simone’s talent as a performer, but they are also rhetorical aspects of her performance. Simone often expressed emotional responses to her own songs, such as when she displayed anger performing “Mississippi Goddamn.” In the case of “Four Women,” she also showed her audience that she could become the women in her song. Simone is Aunt Sarah, Sephronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches when she performs “Four Women,” but these women are not, and could never be, Nina Simone or, for that matter, Eunice Waymon. Simone illustrates the occupation of multiple subject positions in the same song. In this way, Simone offers her audience a tactical approach to identity that emphasizes the power of performative plurality. This approach was both understood and reproduced by the hip-hop artists Talib Kweli and DJ Hi Tek.
Talib Kweli and DJ Hi Tek’s 2000 album, Train of Thought, emphasizes the importance they place on the work of Nina Simone. She was not just their inspiration, as the album’s liner notes indicate. Simone also serves as a reference for Kweli and Hi Tek to help establish their credibility as politically conscious artists standing in opposition to commercial, mainstream hip-hop.29 As Salamishah Tillet argues, Simone is a unique and significant cultural figure due to her radical politics and her challenge to the economic structure of the recording industry. Tillet writes, “Simone becomes a floating signifier of a time long gone, of a historical period that can only be partially recovered,” and this poses a danger: whenever Simone is invoked, it is possible that the political content of her work might be erased or obscured.30 Kweli and Hi Tek use the cultural and political capital generated by invoking Simone, while also positioning themselves as protectors of her legacy. Even outside of this album, a connection to Simone remains central to the way Kweli presents himself as an artist and political activist. For instance, on 5 March 2016, he tweeted, “My relationship with Nina Simone is not abstract it’s actual, in many ways. I live and study music & movements.”31 It is notable that the first response to this tweet is from the twitter user RapBits, who lets Kweli know, “I didn’t know Nina’s name until I heard you mention her. Many others would probably say the same,” which enforces Kweli’s role in maintaining her legacy.32 RapBits’s comment also points to the possibly limited effect of Kweli’s connection to Simone’s legacy, if it only serves to introduce Simone to an audience that is unfamiliar with her, rather than reproduce her political messages.
Kweli and Hi Tek reference Simone in many ways on Train of Thought. For instance, the album’s first track “Experience Dedication,” opens with the comedian Dave Chappelle announcing, “This is Nelson Mandela. I represent Johannesburg, South Africa. When I am in Africa chilling out I listen to Talib Kweli and DJ Hi Tek, Reflection Eternal.”33 At first glance, this is little more than a good joke. The more interesting aspect of the skit is that it is never apparent that the voice is not Nelson Mandela’s.34 Kweli and Hi Tek begin their album by asserting the performative nature of identity. Chappelle both is and is not Mandela, just as Waymon both was and was not Simone. Kweli and Hi Tek have undergone similar transformations, so that Talib Kweli Greene is also Talib Kweli and Tony Cottrell is also DJ Hi Tek.35 These performers are both themselves and somebody else.
Kweli further explores the performance of plurality on the album’s second track, “Move Somethin’.” In the chorus to this song, Kweli condemns some rappers:
Kweli warns of the possibility of misusing the power of a tactical understanding of performance. Performers can pretend to be something they are not, and in so doing they harness the tactics mobilized in a song like Simone’s “Four Women.” Kweli makes a claim against a certain understanding of authenticity by pointing out that the artists who are “fakin’” make appeals to the truth, to a singular “real” identity, rather than acknowledge the performative and tactical character of identity. Truly being “real” would be to understand that everything is not a “reenactment” because there are no original acts to reenact. This does not diminish the weight of assuming a subject position but recognizes the possibility of engaging with a plurality of identities without diminishing them. It emphasizes the tremendous responsibility and burden that is involved in any claim to identity.
This responsibility is invoked in the song “Memories Live.” Kweli begins the first verse:
Memory, here, brings something back to life. The conduit for memory is music. Songs evoke the past, and this mirrors one of the central approaches to hip-hop production: sampling. Songs from the past are mined to produce beats, just as the artifacts of Kweli’s past as a lyricist, the napkins on which he has scribbled notes, were mobilized to create Talib Kweli the MC, and to pass his legacy and his memories to his son. The logic of sampling applies not only to Kweli’s lyrical output, but also to his invocation of “the voice of the spirit,” which enters his body and speaks through him. This mirrors Nina Simone’s description of her performances when she asserts, “It’s like being transported in church; something descends upon you and you are gone; taken away by the spirit that is outside of you.”38 This spirit, that overtakes Simone, transports her body on the stage and enables her to assume the subject positions of the four women in “Four Women.” The past moves through Simone, and she repurposes it to produce new, simultaneous subjects.
As the last track of Train of Thought “For Women” stands in stark contrast to the rest of the album.39 It is the only reworking of another song to appear on the album. 40 Kweli begins the song by invoking Nina Simone and telling his listener that “she said it was inspired by, uh, you know, Down South, in the South they used to call her mother ‘Auntie,’ you know, she said no ‘Missus,’ no, just ‘Auntie,’ you know what I’m sayin’ and, uh, if anybody ever called her ‘Auntie’ she would burn the goddamned place down.”41 He is referencing a specific recording of a live performance of “Four Women” that occurred in 1973 in Berkeley and that was released on her husband’s label, Stroud.42 As Simone tells her audience during that performance, “I could tell you a story about my mama in the South and they call her ‘Auntie.’ In these grocery stores. I only wish I had been there and they called her ‘Auntie.’ No ‘Missus,’” and then returning to the story she asserts, “I tell you this if I had been there when they called my mama “Auntie” I would have burned the whole goddamn place down,” which is met with rapturous applause.43 Kweli’s language mirrors Simone’s, except that he shifts the subject of Simone’s anger. Simone is not defensive about being called Auntie herself, but is enraged for her mother. Simone, who spent her life and her career mastering the tactical performance of her own identity, and who had performed as so many other people throughout her career, does not take the position of her mother but is angry for her mother. The distinction between Simone’s mother and the four women in the song lies in Simone’s inability to perform as, or even in the place of, her mother. Kweli’s conflation of Simone’s mother and Simone suggests he misunderstands the limits of such tactical performances but not their potential power. When Simone talks about her mother she remains Nina Simone, but she is also telling her audience they, like her mother, can resist if only they understand what she is telling them to do.
Simone’s performance of “Four Women” in Berkeley begins with an exegesis of the character of Aunt Sarah. After telling her audience that she does not need to explain the song to them because she has performed it so many times, Simone adds, “She is still going to work, every morning about 7:30. Walking the streets of Harlem. She is a hundred and seven, and she is still scrubbing floors. But it’s okay, it’s okay. She doesn’t have too long to wait now.”44 Simone puts significant effort into concretizing the women in this song. They are neither arbitrary nor archetypal because they are real, at least during Simone’s performance.
That Kweli chose this recording of “Four Women” to recount at the start of “For Women” is significant because he is referencing a moment on an obscure record that provides him insight and access into Simone. This is only possible because a live performance was recorded and later discovered. There is something unique about recordings of live performances. As Evan Eisenberg asserts, “The word ‘record’ is misleading. Only live recordings record an event; studio recordings, which are the great majority, record nothing. Pieced together from bits of actual events, they construct an ideal event.”45 This distinction, between the record created in a studio and the live event, is repeated by Brian Eno, “The first thing about recording is that it makes repeatable what was otherwise transient and ephemeral. Music, until about 1900, was an event that was perceived in a particular situation, and that disappeared when it was finished.”46 The event of a live performance always occurs at the risk of being lost, but once it was possible to record them, these events became repeatable. The power of a Nina Simone performance is transferred to a specific artifact, grooves of information pressed into a 12-inch piece of vinyl. Once it was played back, the power of the performance, the unique event that otherwise would be lost to time, can recur. The record embodies and preserves that event.
Kweli’s invocation of Simone’s performance at Berkeley should be understood in the light of the role that sampling plays in hip-hop. Tricia Rose offers an insightful understanding of the relationship between sampling and hip-hop in her seminal work Black Noise. As she writes, “In rap, sampling remains a tactical priority. More precisely, samplers are the quintessential rap production tool. Although rappers did not invent drum machines or sampling, they have revolutionized their use.”47 Sampling in hip-hop production creatively appropriates the digital technology that was originally created to provide a cost-saving alternative to hiring studio musicians. Also, sampling, for Rose, is a tactical response to the problem of recreating and expanding on the sonic textures produced by hip-hop DJs when they isolated specific parts of records to meet the demands of their audiences during live performances.48 Remaking “Four Women” based on a live recording of it replicates the logic of sampling, emphasizing, as Joe Schloss points out, that for sample-based hip-hop producers, “it is not so much the history of a community or even of a musical form that producers are interested in, but the history of sound recordings.”49 Instead of only using and repurposing found sounds in a present moment, Kweli and Hi Tek also used a recording to find and repurpose its articulation of a tactical approach to identity. Simone’s performance at Berkeley teaches her audience about the political need to approach identity tactically by mobilizing a politics of plurality. Kweli and Hi Tek understand this and repeat it for their audience, showing them how to think of identity as mobile, and to engage with the radical demands of a politics of plurality. While Simone’s embodying of four black women in the song makes a strong political statement about identity, Kweli reminds his listeners that this tactical gambit is encoded into the production of hip-hop through the process of sampling.50
Following in Simone’s footsteps by asserting claims such as, “From Harlem’s where I came, don’t worry about my name, up on one-two-five, they call me sweet thang,” Kweli fundamentally challenges any demand for any person to perform their identity as essential, necessary, or singular.51 To do this, Kweli does not rely on his voice alone. Kweli only assumes a first-person perspective when his voice is doubled by a female voice, or female voices, emphasizing the plurality of identity involved in the performance of the women in the song. The female background vocalists who appear on the song are Imani Uzuri, Tiyi Willingham, Tiye Phoenix, Neb Luv, Darcel, Katushia, and Tracie, and these vocal performances were arranged by Uzuri.52 Their voices, along with the layering of sounds sampled to produce the beat, emphasize the polyphonic character of “For Women” as if to underline the song’s rejection of any singular or unique voice or subject position. Kweli and these women, both those in the song and those who sing alongside him, cannot be contained by singular identities.
Kweli’s and Hi Tek’s “For Women” acknowledges subjectivity’s inherent plurality. To return to Rose’s text, Kweli’s decisions in “For Women” enact on a lyrical level her claim that “sampling as it is used by rap artists indicates the importance of collective identities and group histories. There are hundreds of shared phrases and slang words in rap lyrics, yet a given rap text is the personal and emotive voice of the rapper.”53 The personal, Kweli argues, is always collective, plural, and multiple. By understanding the logic of sampling, however, it becomes possible to take some degree of control over this plurality of identities to engage with them and, hopefully, to do something with them. Kweli cannot be these four women, but neither could Nina Simone. Instead the two artists become them during their performances and through the artifacts they produce even if only for a moment and on a piece of vinyl or plastic, or as a few bytes of digital information.
5. EXPERIENCE OUTRO
Talib Kweli and DJ Hi Tek’s Train of Thought seems engaged in a project of destabilizing the demand for concrete identities from Dave Chappelle’s opening words on their album. To bookend the record with Chappelle’s Nelson Mandela and Kweli’s Nina Simone is to make a bold statement about what is possible on wax. The revolutionary potential that exists once a musical performance is made into a physical object, whether that be the recording of a singular event or a construct built in a studio, is emphasized by Kweli and Hi Tek, both in the form of their own record and in Simone’s record as they unearth, remake, and sample. While it is possible to write this off as a creative reapplication of technology, by articulating a different variety of sampling, in this case a performative, lyrical one, Kweli and Hi Tek point to another way to mobilize the revolutionary potential of the sample and the discourse surrounding it. “For Women,” includes more than a sound brought back to life, but a moment where Kweli, channeling Nina Simone and the spirit she has already invoked, brings these four women to life, remobilizing them in a new context. Whatever gains are made when Kweli does this might not be permanent, but they are repeatable and meaningful. All of this is made possible as Kweli reminds his listeners when introducing his verse about Aunt Sarah because “you know what I’m saying, coming up to the millennium, can’t forget our elders.”54 Although it is possible to hear this as Kweli demanding respect for women like Aunt Sarah or for “our elders,” like Nina Simone, he is also reminding his listeners that the old records that provide the source material for today’s hip-hop beats contain more than just sounds that need to be excavated. In the case of Nina Simone, this means not only sampling the sounds of her voice and her piano, but also returning to the lessons she was trying to teach her audiences in her performances. The appeal to resist being reduced into a legible, static identity remains as important in our contemporary world as it was for Kweli in 2000 and as it was for Nina Simone as she thought about how to react to the violence of the liberal state.