Frequencies
By Josh Kun

America Goddam

IN 1963, a bomb exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and killed four young black girls. For Nina Simone, a 30-year-old black singer born in Jim Crow North Carolina, it was the last straw. She wrote "Mississippi Goddam" in response, an angry, clear-eyed rebuke of murderous white racism, a powerful song demanding desegregation become adopted as an urgent national mission. "There comes a time when the cup of endurance runneth over," Martin Luther King Jr. had already written in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." The year 1963 was Simone's time, and "Mississippi Goddam" was the sound of her throwing the cup against the wall and bellowing, "I can't stand the pressure much longer!"

On a legendary recording at Carnegie Hall the following year – included in the new box set Four Women: The Nina Simone Philips Recordings (Verve) – she sings of hound dogs on her trail and children jailed in a country with an urgent need for salvation. She prays, "Lord have mercy on this land of mine," even while believing that prayer might be useless for a nation overcome by deceit. "This whole country is full of lies," she accuses. "You all gonna die and die like flies." Simone looked at America and saw inequality, called it what it was, and set out to tell the truth. She died this past April, just when we needed her the most, just when the war against Iraq was revealing that this country still hadn't learned to tell the truth.

I didn't grow up in the '60s, and I was born too late to experience the widespread political disillusionment of Vietnam. As a white, wealthy kid from a progressive Jewish family, I knew I was supposed to be a Democrat and suspected I might be a leftist, but I still had a naive faith in the good of my government. But now I have watched an unconstitutionally elected president blatantly disregard the outcries of his people (and people all over the world) and decimate another country in the name of liberating it. I have watched my government propose a second PATRIOT Act to make sure the first one amply rendered civil liberty and the right to privacy irrelevant. I have watched them pledge allegiance to the National Security Strategy of the United States and adopt planetary domination as national religion.

As a result I have been forced to face what so many others have already known so intimately for decades: being a conscious American citizen means knowing you are being lied to, means knowing, as Gore Vidal recently argued in the Nation, that the line between constitutional democracy and despotism ("The people? What people?") is dangerously fuzzy. The revelation by the BBC that the saving of Pvt. Jessica Lynch was staged, that American soldiers weren't being heroes but playing heroes in a scripted rescue scenario planned and orchestrated by Pentagon intelligence, now stands as the great ratings-winning season finale of an administration committed to seeing just how far stagecraft as ideology can go.

I used to listen to Simone as a way of understanding the '60s civil rights movement. Now I listen as a way to understand this moment and the new set of lies this country is living through. On her 1966 song "Come Ye," also on Four Women, she asked – in solemn, gospel tones – for all of the truth tellers to step forward. "Come ye, ye who would have peace," she called out. "Come ye, ye who have no fear of what tomorrow brings." Rachel Corrie took that step forward, and her e-mails to her family – written in the months before she was bulldozed to death in the West Bank – read like an "Israel Goddamn," shouts against specific injustices made in the name of universalist humanity. "This is not at all what I asked for when I came into this world," she told her mother.

Simone's "Come Ye" invitation to fight for the present feels so vital right now precisely because there is so little popular music out there that is willing (to paraphrase Simone's line about "Mississippi Goddam") to be a show tune for a show that hasn't been written yet. Michael Franti and Spearhead get close with "Bomb the World," a song from their new album, Everyone Deserves Music (iMusic). Though burdened with a clunky chorus ("We can bomb the world to pieces / But we can't bomb it into peace"), the song eloquently asks for a redistribution of power from those who cultivate war to those who cultivate peace. "God bless the people who cannot raise their voice," Franti sings, and then does a Simone echo: "I sing out to the masses, stand up if you're still sane."

Simone closed her 1965 album Pastel Blues with her own plea to God, a 10-minute take on the traditional "Sinnerman." In the song's parable, he who has sinned – against truth, against liberty – has nowhere to go. The rock won't hide him. The river bleeds. The sea boils. For when judgment day comes, it is the truthful and the peaceful who will be saved, the voiceless who will be heard.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.


June 25, 2003