Like Du Bois, Simone was an expat: When she died in 2003, after a protracted illness, she was living in Carry-le-Rouet, a small seaside town in the south of France, some 4,500 miles away from the house on East Livingston Street where she had been born 70 years earlier. Even though she lived nearly half her life outside of the United States — from Liberia to the Netherlands and beyond before settling in France — she remained forever enlisted in the cause of racial justice in America. Simone’s enduring power emanates from her art and from her activism, as well as from 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 grappling with love, loss and longing. But her most cherished recordings — “Four Women,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Mississippi Goddam” — are original compositions that give voice to an insurgent 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 are not just questions about music; [they’re] questions about the avant-garde, about abstraction, about how artists speak to each other across generations and across time.” Pendleton, 38, whose work often incorporates language layered like a palimpsest, finds his artistic connection to Simone in a shared commitment to the complexity, at times the indeterminacy, of voice. (Simone once said of her vocal 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 after Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 1968 assassination, “demands a kind of deep listening, a kind of geometry of attention,” Pendleton explains.
It is fitting, if unexpected, that a group of visual artists—not musicians—came together to rescue Simone’s childhood home. They share common goals: that the home be preserved as a place of artistic creation and invention; that it support aspiring artists, particularly those pursuing the path from which Simone was excluded, in classical performance and composition. In the fashion of Simone’s classical compositional approach, the artists offer variations on these shared themes. Pendleton wonders if the home might function like a StoryCorps site, providing a space for oral history and reflection. Mehretu, 51, thinks it could “offer a refuge and a space of development” for creative people. Johnson, perhaps inspired by his travels to Ghana, imagines it as a site of pilgrimage — in both the physical and the virtual worlds. Leggs understands all of these visions and more coming together as part of the enduring legacy of the home, and ensuring that Tryon, as Leggs puts it, “has a Black future.”
The language of historical preservation—easements, adaptive reuse, stewardship planning—might 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 potent symbol, it is also a century-old structure in need of maintenance and basic upkeep. It’s a contrast worthy of Simone herself, a singer both of show tunes and knife-sharp indictments of racist duplicity, a loving freedom fighter and truculent aggressor, a figure who tests our capacity to contain the challenging but essential facets of our national history. Nearly two decades after her death, she is still bearing witness, living her life after life through the artists she inspires in the house where she was born.