Maahi Shah writes as The Art Huntress and makes us move.
I sat up straight on my bed awestruck, wondering what hit me and then attempted to watch the very same movies again. To comprehend the depth of feelings, of passion and of the power of music. Just like I pledged my life to art, Nina Simone, Quincy Jones and Bob Marley poured their heart and soul into creating music. Music that would be remembered, identified with and played for generations long after they were gone. Born and raised in bigotry ridden neighbourhoods such as those of North Carolina, the Southside of Chicago and Trenchtown, Jamaica, violence seemed to be the only way out…until they found music. From political aggression and assertion of rights, to breaking the barriers of race and finally seeking solace, love and peace, it is this ground-breaking art that revolutionised the way we think and feel in ways more than one.
Nina Simone was just 6 years old when she dreamt of becoming the first female Black Pianist in the United States of America. There was depth in her voice and darkness within her soul. Crabbed handwriting filled the pages of her diary where her pent up frustration, depression and anxiety came crashing down like waves on a stormy day. She was able to morph the music into her experience as an individual. Her songs seemed to be following the trajectory of her own life. From being in love, with ‘Little Lisa Jane’ and ‘My baby just cares for me’ to civil rights songs like ‘Young, gifted and Black’ and ‘Mississippi Goddam.’
It was her passion and extremity of emotions that sustained her. In an interview, she recalls that there were very few moments when she felt free. To be free, she says, “Means no fear.” It was only the stage that enabled her this freedom. Her words were aggressive and piercing;
“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,” “You think all coloured people are second class fools.” But for her and so many others, these weren’t merely lyrics to a song or a performance one evening, but reality itself. Her life and career undoubtedly answers the question; “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” She wanted people to feel her music as deeply as she did, with meaning and purpose. Her music made her the happiest, yet it was the darkest of sentiments that drove her to make the music that she did. The closing lines of the documentary, “What happened, Miss Simone” leaves us intrigued to say the least, giving an insight into the anomaly that was, Nina Simone. “Was Niña allowed be exactly as she was; as fragile as she was strong as vulnerable as she was dynamic, she was African Royalty, how does royalty stem around in the mud and still walk with grace”
‘Quincy’ opens into a yesteryear of frames, albums and awards composed by Jones. Growing up on the southside of Chicago was far from easy. Until the age of 11, Q wanted to be a gangster because “You want to be, what you see.” His grandmother was a former slave and he was carrying a knife around with him by the age of 9. Quincy says, “I had no control over where he lived, no control over my sick mother. I couldn’t control the angry whites, who still called me nigger when they caught me alone on the street. But music was the one thing I could control. It was the one that offered me my freedom.” He knew he was in heaven when he broke into the armory and found that piano. He worked with some of the greats of Jazz music such as Count Basie, found friend and family in several others like Frank Sinatra. Together with Sinatra, they were able to break barriers of race and bigotry in the United States. A new mix of jazz and hip-hop flourished under his tutelage, because to him being hip, meant being aware.
During a conversation with Kendrick Lamar, he says, “Isn’t it astounding man when you look at the reality of us having the same twelve notes for 710 years.” He valued tremendously his relationships, children and friends, yet his ambition, passion and workaholic nature overpowered the former through most of his life. To Jones, music was synonymous to magic; “My feeling is always leave at least 20 to 30 % of room for the Lord to walk through the room. Because you know then you’re leaving room for the magic. And Love contributed more to magic in the studio than anything else.”
Describing the phenomenon that Bob Marley was, his closest friend says, “It’s really like a light goes out and that big light is gone and you’re never going to see that again in this lifetime.” To say this gave me goosebumps would be an understatement. Bob Marley grew up in Trench town in the war-torn country of Jamaica. At the age of 17, Marley started singing pop culture songs and went on to make reggae music and the Rastafarian message. Closely related to the idea of African liberation and the purpose of a black man, the Rasta movement articulated the oppression of the people in Africa. Political conflict and tribal war led to widespread violence in the cities of Jamaica in the 1960’s. Bob saw the contempt of the poor and wanted them to have power with the help of music. Marley was seen by all as a symbol of hope and peace. Ironically, when he moved to 56, Hope road he said he was “Bringing the ghetto uptown.” Members of gangs and rivalrous political parties found a neutral ground at his house.
He was political, but never favored any political party; “Me don’t dip on nobody’s side. Me dip on god’s side.” Like Simone, his songs too reflected the times and his own experiences. He gave one of his best performances at the ‘Smile Jamaica concert’ days after he had been shot. He then travelled around the world to spread the message of love. His message was seductive- leaving crowds of people overwhelmed and in a state of frenzy. His music continues to change the hearts and minds of people. When he returned to Jamaica for the ‘One love concert’ it was almost as if the music took over his mind and body. Lightning struck and onlookers were held captivated, as they felt the presence of a higher power that night.
Art is not easy. It takes form at some of the toughest junctures in one’s life. Crisis and chaos become a muse to creativity. In the midst of this, the artists find a calm in their passion. Beautifully put by Hadley and Yancey, “The spoken word—particularly when amplified by the beat of a drum or grounded in a memorable melody—has been considered a form of magic and creation: the speaking of beliefs and ideas into existence.”
Such is the power and impact that music can have on each one of us. Music empowers, inspires and drives change. It enables us to be free and sometimes… just be.
Maahi Shah is a lot of brains, talent and words. We dare you to find a match or just shut up and listen, sit down and read or stand agape.
The Spotify playlist:
Documentaries to look out for:
1) Quincy on Netflix
2) What happened, Miss Simone? on Netflix
3) Remastered: Who shot the Sheriff? on Netflix
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