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Nina Simone's MLK tribute lives on

NEVER FORGET: Martin Luther King’s murder still reverberates in the black community

I WOULDN’T normally speak for the entire diaspora, but I think it’s fair to say that the saddest day ever for us as black people was that day in 1968 when Dr Martin Luther King Jnr was assistant, April 4. Fifty years ago this week.

And yet, it feels like just the other day. So fresh is it in our psyche. Fresh, because something like that which shakes a people to its very core never becomes stale. But not ‘raw’ because MLK would not have wanted us to be bitter and twisted by it for the rest of our lives. Such was his humanitarian message.

It is almost unbelievable that Dr King was just 39 years old when he was brutally gunned down on that fateful balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It was at the very moment when we learned of it that many of us believed that we were all targets of the assassin’s vengeance.

Because if Martin Luther King could be gunned down in broad daylight then we could all be touched. Easily. As an eight-year-old I was scared. I can only imagine what was going through my parents’ thoughts.

We do know what was going through the great artist Nina Simone’s mind. We have it on record. For she was scheduled to do a gig at the Westbury Music Fair on April 7, 1968, just three days after King’s assassination and, in what is surely the most haunting tune by any artist, Nina turned what would have been an otherwise unremarkable concert on her tour into the most emotionally exhausting and penetrating musical event that I have ever heard. A real tour de force.

Why (The King of Love Is Dead) is a polemic wrapped in a blues. Written by Nina’s bass player Gene Taylor within 48 hours of Dr King’s death, it is a bittersweet song that speaks to the black condition with a defiance that has never been replicated on record.

But at the same time it is more than that. Because it is a live performance, it becomes a documentary of the time. Like in the old days when reggae rappers – the likes of Big Youth and I-Roy were the ghetto newspapers for the poor people of Jamaica (the story goes that the first many people in Jamaica’s garrison towns learned that man had taken that small step for man and huge leap for mankind on the moon with a hop, skip and a gravitation- less jump was by way of Der- rick Morgan’s Moon Hop).

In this one song, Why (The King of Love Is Dead), Nina captures the mood of the nation in the immediate after- math of the slaying of Dr King better then any news report could have. But Why (The King of Love Is Dead) is not just factual, it oozes emotion as Nina introduces the song by confessing, in sad and incredulous tones, that they only had “yesterday to learn it”.

“He was not a violent man,” Nina yells in perhaps the most haunting passage, before turn- ing to her audience (white America and the world) in quite sinister terms:

“Bigotry sealed his fate. We can all shed tears, but it won’t change a thing. Teach your people, will they ever learn? Why must you always kill with bombs and guns. Don’t you know how we’ve got to react, don’t you know what it will bring?”

It was a rhetorical question, given that by now cities in America were burning with the anger of black people. It was the greatest wave of social un- rest the US had ever seen.

And to echo these disturbances, Nina freestyles the last segment of Why (The King of Love Is Dead) into a rap about race. “What’s gonna happen now,” she asks. “In all of our cities my people are rising;
They’re living in lies. Even if they have to die at the moment that they know what life is.” But she doesn’t drop the bomb until the very end. When she simply talks to the tinkling on her piano.

“We can’t afford any more losses,” she says, choked up. “Oh my god they’re shooting us down one by one..” And then her voice gets really serious: “Don’t forget that... cause they are killing us one by one... Well, all I have to say is that those of us who know how to protect those of us that we love, stand by them and stay close to them... and I say, if there had been a couple more people a little closer to Dr King he wouldn’t have got hit...”

Who did she mean when she says that Dr King would have been protected if some people who had the power, the authority, the gravitas and the fame, had stayed a little closer to him he wouldn’t have been assassinated?

Does she mean Jesse Jackson who was with him on that balcony the night before. Does she mean the great black names of Hollywood or Motown, who supported Dr King’s civil rights movement, but often at a respectable distance.

Or does she mean the white elite and particularly Robert Kennedy, a front-runner for the presidency at the time? In a way it doesn’t really matter who she means. Dr King’s assassination at the hands of Deep South racists could have happened at any time. Our black leaders need our support and protection.

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