Saturday 25 July 2015


Sometimes I am compelled to watch a movie. I will make a concerted effort to trek to the arts picture house, buy a ticket and immerse. Last week, I witnessed Amy - a documentary by Asif Kapadia on the singer Amy Winehouse, whose music ought to have made her an enduring legend, but whose descent into drugs and alcohol annihilated body and soul. After an hour and a half, I wondered when the movie would end. When the credits rolled, I realised I hadn't once been moved. I walked out of the theatre and into crowds, into shops. Twice I was asked about my day and I shared my thoughts on the film. I think Amy would have hated the film. She would be humiliated by this remembrance of the very worst of her laid bare for our delectation. It was ghostly voyeurism. 

Later that night, still unable to shake the fog of depression, I began another documentary, this time on Netflix, one that has had no fanfare or billboard trumpeting. Amy has been advertised everywhere, has 97% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, will no doubt earn nominations and awards - this quiet little film streaming only on Netflix was about a gifted black woman. Nina Simone. Critical and public interest in the story of a black woman vs the story of a white woman in the music industry, then and now, is virtually unchanged. Evidence: the recent Taylor Swift/ Nicki Minaj twitter debacle.

Within the first five minutes of Liz Garbus' What Happened, Miss Simone I was in tears. Nina responds to the question: 'What is free to you?' 'What does freedom mean to me? I'll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear. If I could have that for half of my life. I mean, really. No fear. Like a new way of seeing.' When I was in N2 all those many months of 2009, imprisoned in my hospital cell on feeding tubes, cannulas in my jugular, I came across this quote and wrote about it on my blog. Nina's music and lyrics have formed a constant thread in my life from the first year of this disease taking hold of me, because Nina writes about freedom.

She wasn't free. She was young, gifted and black during the most violent times. She wrote about the horror of the bombing of four black children in a church in Birmingham, Alabama in Mississippi Goddam, the lynchings of black men in Strange Fruit, and had a mental breakdown eventually because how could she dissociate from feeling anger for her people, and yet making the kind of music white people would buy? Nobody loves an angry black woman even if her anger is poetic justice. Everybody loves a damaged white woman: Marilyn Monroe, Vivian Leigh, Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse. Simone was damaged too, of course. A manic depressive with a violence in her that was ultimately contained by a prescription drug that slurred her speech and chemically altered her personality. The price of fame for a dream that wasn't hers. Her dream? To be a classical pianist. First black female classical pianist. 

Meanwhile the chemo dripped into me yesterday. In the last hour, a woman on my right had a fit of bone bruising coughing. I hadn't heard anything like it in a while. So of course I turned to her. The cause of her severe lung destroying bronchial trouble? The same drug sliding into my veins. Be careful, she warned me. Stay vigilant. Pass me some of that No Fear, Nina. I need it, as I've always done. 


Unknown said...

Love this piece Shai. So true and beautifully put together.

Click to leave a comment