Ledisi: Lifted by Nina

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Ledisi takes on the challenge of singing the music of Nina Simone and making it her own.

(Photo: Ron T. Young)

Thirteen might be an unfortunate number for some, but for multihyphenate vocalist Ledisi, it proved to be verifiably lucky. In March, she won her first Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance with the slow-burner “Anything For You,” which also reached #1 on Billboard Adult R&B charts.

It was her 13th nomination.

During a Zoom interview this June, the singer shared with DownBeat that the win was especially sweet because the song was released on her own label, Listen Back Entertainment, on her own terms.

“When I finally won, I was shocked, but I was also more excited about the work up to it,” Ledisi said. “We completed a full year of work on my own label, and we did that after all these years. It’s like God said, ‘No. I want it like this.’ It’s even bigger than what I wanted. I had been on a steady climb, but it’s moving faster than I can keep up with right now. I’m trying to catch up to everything. It’s beautiful.”

And so was Ledisi — warm, bubbly and engaging as she recounted that moment, clad in a bishop-sleeved, yellow tunic, taking a moment out in Los Angeles, on the move between recording engagements.

After such an encouraging turn of events, the vocalist concluded that it was time for her to pay a round of alms to an artist who “just keeps coming up,” an ever-present guiding force in her life during both the high and low times: Nina Simone.

Ledisi’s connection to the High Priestess of Soul dates back to her youth. Growing up, “My mom would wake us up to ‘Mississippi Goddam,’” Ledisi said, “because we wouldn’t get up in the mornings. I thought it was my mom’s song.” Her mother, Nyra Dynese, has also worked in the business as a performer and as a songwriter.

“Mom was preparing us for the world. She was preparing us for, ‘Your Black skin ain’t going to be enough, or it’s going to be everything and not supposed to be everything. What’s [inside] is supposed to be everything.’

“And then, in the darkest moment, [Simone] comes back up again when I’m in my twenties and forced me to study her because she saved my life pretty much. I was on the porch in a white rocking chair listening to the radio: KPFA. I was in Oakland and full of bills, exhausted, done with life. I just wanted to go. And ‘Trouble In Mind’ started to play, this loud piano … just bam! And I went, ‘Who is that?’ I walked into the living room and sat there and made myself listen, and it was Nina singing all the words that described my mood. She became a mood for me … and she just kept interrupting my life.”

Ledisi said her first “big television performance” was during BET’s Black Girls Rock award show in 2010, performing the Nina Simone-penned standard “Four Women” alongside Jill Scott, Kelly Price and Marsha Ambrosius. The song elegantly exhumes the humanity concealed by timeworn stereotypes, and for that retelling, each powerhouse vocalist took on a persona (Ledisi delivered an earth-shattering “Peaches”). “That performance helped open doors,” she said, adding that reverberations from the event have impacted her career, “still, to this day.”

She noted that her album, Ledisi Sings Nina, is a natural evolution of “eight years of different configurations” of interpreting Simone’s work, including a performance in collaboration with the National Symphony Orchestra Pops at the Kennedy Center in 2017, followed by a show with a big band in New Orleans. After a play (penned by Ledisi) and further performances at Royal Albert Hall in London, she concluded, “Gosh, I got to record this.”

“It’s not like it’s just a record I decided to do. This has been a long relationship that’s been interrupting my life consistently. [In May], I just got a call out of the blue, an email. Come celebrate Nina in her hometown [Tyron, North Carolina]. I had never been. I went and saw her humble beginnings, this little one-bedroom home and little church across the way.”

The trip made her feel an even closer kinship with Simone. “I like to honor her by touching and agreeing on certain things she would do and incorporate, but I’m not trying to be her. I want to be me while honoring her and that’s why I added all my modern twist and make sure I’m who I am because there is never going to be another Nina, ever.”

Ledisi just happens to know more than her fair share about honoring the ancestors, noting, “Any tribute on television, I’m the one they call.” That’s no exaggeration. She was charged to sing Mary Wells’ “My Guy” at a 2011 White House Motown Tribute, a gospel-tinged rendition of “Wake Up Everybody” with Kirk Franklin and Daniel Caesar at the 2017 Soul Train Music Awards, a BET Awards tribute to Anita Baker alongside Jamie Foxx, Marsha Ambrosius and Yolanda Adams in 2018, and she even paid tribute to Louis Jordan at the 2018 Grammy Awards. It’s a track record that speaks to her versatility as a vocalist.

“And that’s the point I’m hoping to make with this,” she noted. “Showing that I’m not your boxed r&b singer. I’m more than that. I studied classical. It just so happens that I’m loved for r&b, but my home base goes over into all these other worlds, just like Nina. She was jazz and classical, listen to her playing. She was Africa … her rhythm and her phrasing.”

Of course, in addition to her comprehensive sonic sensibilities, Simone was also renowned for her ability to stunningly convey biting political commentary. But even though Simone’s legacy is intricately tied to her progressive stances, she told Ebony magazine in 1969, “I hope the day comes when I’ll be able to sing more love songs, when the need is not quite so urgent to sing protest songs.”

Conversely, gushing, though never cloying, romantic lyricism is also present within Simone’s repertoire, so Ledisi had a wide palette of moods to choose from while selecting tracks for her album. Ultimately, her choices mirrored Simone’s hopes that were arguably unfulfilled in her lifetime. “I didn’t want to focus on activism, it’s so easy to focus there,” Ledisi said. “I wanted people to see and hear the joy of a Black woman. My joy for her … because that’s what she brought me in my darkness. Just got me right on out. Her joy and her audacity to go, ‘Love me. I’m a Black woman. Love me like this. Give me what I ask for, what I deserve.’”

It’s a choice that’s radical in its own way. And the resulting album, which draws deep from the pool of genius that is Nina Simone’s catalog, is no saccharine valentine.

If Ledisi Sings Nina were a perfume composed of emotion, the top note would be delight, but longing would serve as an unmistakable base note. Ledisi said that emotive cocktail was intentional. “The songs I chose were all the stuff that had joy and longing. [In] New Orleans, even at the funeral, we find joy at the end, but we’re longing. We’re hurt inside, but we’re expressing the joy of what was.”

After mentioning that “Wild Is the Wind” and “Going Back Home” are standout examples to that point, the singer laid her cards on the table: “How can you sing a Nina song and not describe the pain? Anytime I open my mouth, I always have a longing for people to get it. That urgency. Can you please understand me every time I sing, every time?”

It’s an urgency that’s perhaps tied to 20-plus years in an industry rife with rampant “isms” that gnaw at the heart, regardless of the talent.

A minor Twitter scandal erupted in 2015, when at that year’s Grammy awards, Beyoncé was employed to sing Mahalia Jackson’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” in tribute to the critically acclaimed film Selma. That’s despite the fact that Ledisi played the role of Gospel great Jackson in the 2014 film (also singing a rendition of the classic tune in the motion picture). She was a Grammy nominee that night (notably up against Beyoncé for Best R&B Performance). At that point, she had six solo albums under her belt, but Ledisi watched the performance from the audience.

But that was then.

Today, her vantage point is firmly forward-leaning. “You’re on the outside looking at it. So that’s what you see. But, I’m at a space now that I don’t care anymore, that’s why I’m just creating. It doesn’t mean I don’t care; it just means I’m not concerned as heavily as I used to be. I don’t have time for that. I’m just trying to do well, do the very best at every little thing that I possibly can. That’s from being a parent, a wife, a creator, CEO, activist, advocate: Whatever that is, do it well.”

Ledisi is quick to credit some of that growth to her study of Simone’s journey.

“I’ve created a lane for myself within my own label where I can stretch and not be in a box. I’m just grateful God has blessed me with the opportunity to be able to be that kind of business woman, and I think that’s what Nina wanted. I’m the example of what my ancestors wanted. They wanted their space to just be creators,” she explained. “I had so many lessons in this process. I’m a better human. I’m more outspoken than I used to be because of [Simone]. I’m just enjoying this journey, whatever this is. I’ve been speaking the things I want boldly. When you look at her interviews, she’s having a whole interview about music and all of a sudden, it’s just so free. It’s the best master class ever of how to be vocal, but that freedom part if she didn’t say it, we wouldn’t get it. This is what it feels and looks like. This is what it should be. This is how we should be moving in the world.”

In one piece of archival footage, Simone, speaking candidly at the historically Black Morehouse University in 1969, relayed to an unseen interviewer, “I think what you’re trying to ask is why am I so insistent of giving out to them that Blackness, that Black power, that Black pushing them to identify with Black culture.”

Almond eyes lined in the cat-eye fashion, wide-brimmed hat tilted with intention, she continued, “I have no choice over it in the first place. To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world, Black people, and I mean that in every sense, outside and inside.”

Ledisi said that during this past year of incomplete plans, “COVID has taught me that life is too short,” and that hard-won lesson amplified another lesson gleaned from studying Simone. “Go and ask for the things you want. [She] taught me that. So I’ve just been vocal, trying new things, being open, asking for what I want and waiting on it. It’s such a freeing feeling. So, when I sing ‘Feeling Good,’ I mean that. I feel good in my spaces, whatever they may be.”

Perhaps the most commonly covered song connected to Simone would be all of those renditions of “Feeling Good” that often fall flat. Perhaps they convey sufficient joie de vivre, but they conspicuously miss the warm dimensionality the piece originally injected into the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint–The Smell of the Crowd in the mid-1960s.

An explanation for that oft-found flatness might be found in the old adage that says that you can’t understand the sunshine until you’ve experienced the rain.

Ledisi concurred, “Until you sit in the seat, you just don’t get it. You’re just singing notes, but when you sing the life in between the notes and add it to the notes, it’s a whole other thing. You don’t just pick up a Nina song and sing it. It’s like singing ‘Here’s To Life,’ Shirley Horn. I’m not ready to sing that song. You wait though, I’m going to be ready!

“Life is good, getting older is good. It is scary as hell, but it’s so refreshing because you know who you are. You become who you’re meant to be even more. I love the lane I’m in. I love it. I wouldn’t change it. I’m grateful she opened the door for me.”

Armed with myriad lessons from the past, Ledisi’s wide eyes are squarely trained on the future, and on building her own legacy.

“That’s what I’m looking for. Is this good? Is this adding to my legacy? When I leave this earth, did I leave something great? And every moment counts for me because I remember sleeping on the floor thinking, ‘Is this ever going to get better?’ Or that moment on that porch [asking myself], ‘Why does she keep coming up in my world?’ So, I think this [album is the] step to complete something to honor her. And she’s helping me. She’s lifting me as I honor her.” DB



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