Music has the incredible facility to provoke obscure emotions and trigger thoughts of the past. A certain string of notes can instantaneously incite a memory so vivid that it is almost tangible. For instance, I am utterly incapable of listening to Carla Bruni without being immediately brought back to my early morning walks up Rue Moufftard nor can I listen to Nick Drake without thinking of the back roads of Dartmouth. Velvet Underground sends butterflies swimming through my stomach, as it reminds me of an awful ex-boyfriend I had some years ago, whereas, Ani Difranco’s work elicits memories of the hyperemotional years lacing my adolescence. In truth, it’s really quite difficult to determine which musician, or even more tasking which song has had the greatest influence on my life or has stayed with me the longest. Yet weeding through the glut of soundtracks I’ve accumulated over the years as an avid music junkie, I’ve managed to narrow it down to one musician and then finally to one song: Nina Simone’s Ain’t Got No.
Nina Simone, known to many as the “High Priestess of Soul”, is a woman I have always harbored profound respect and admiration for. It would be imprudent to classify her as solely a Jazz musician, as she was not the type to be pigeonholed to one identity. Singer, songwriter, pianist, actress and activist, Nina Simone was a woman who couldn’t be confined to one career or stifled by the social implications of her race. Her vocal versatility is evident through her embrace of genres ranging from blues to gospel, jazz and folk. Although I find much of her music incredibly inspiring, the song Ain’t Got No has unquestionably been the most influential on my life and work.
This particular piece of music conveys the importance of gratitude. Illustrating the necessity to transcend the difficulties of life, the song is ultimately about appreciating what it is that you already have, rather then focusing on what it is that you don’t. This indispensable outlook on life has helped me through the most difficult of times, as it has served as a constant reminder to always count my blessings. The song starts off by listing all it is that she is without: Ain’t got no money, ain’t got no class/ Ain’t got no mother, ain’t got no culture/ Ain’t got no friends, ain’t got no schooling. The song continues in this self pitying vein for quite some time and I remember vividly the first time hearing it, I thought to myself- God, isn’t this depressing. However, the song ultimately shifts into her acknowledging all it is she has to be thankful for: I got my hair, I got my head/ I got my brains, I got my ears/ I got my eyes, I got my nose/ I got my mouth, I got my smile. Her appreciation for what many take for granted is as uplifting as it is inspiring. She is grateful just to be alive, to have fingers and toes and legs that move. The simplicity of her gratitude is perhaps what I love most about the song. It is nearly impossible not to smile while listening to her vocalize the joy of having a liver and boobies.
In order to fully appreciate the beauty of this song’s lyrics, one must be conscious of the circumstances binding the woman that wrote them. Nina Simone was not only a woman, but a black woman, living in an era when neither were easy identities to inhabit. However, amid the turmoil of the civil rights and feminist movement, Nina Simone defied the odds and became an almost iconic figure in the jazz world. In the wake of great social and racial injustice, she neglected the limitations stemming from the color of her skin and sang fearlessly about the inequality plaguing the nation. Through addressing the bigotry prevalent in the United States during the time, she was able to increase awareness amongst the masses about the severity of the situation. Although her song, Ain’t Got No is not of the many in her repertoire that express her anger towards the intolerant nation, it does illustrate her ability to transcend the racial injustice plaguing her generation and find the good in life.
Nina Simone is blessed with the ability to inspire people through her art form, something that I incessantly strive to achieve through my own photography. Although there is a disparity in the mediums, the facility to influence people in a way that has sway over their emotions or even shifts their perspective on a matter is an indication of indisputable artistic genius. Ain’t Got No conveys the notion that we don’t have even enough fingers to count all of our blessings. The seemingly simplistic form of gratitude is ultimately bliss in its purest form. Nina Simone proves to have the ability to see beauty where others see pain, see hope where others see misery. She has harnessed a way of communicating a concept that I constantly struggle to illustrate through my photography, which is finding beauty in the grotesque.