Think about this: If you’re a black American musical star, critically acclaimed but still relegated to performing for audiences of “hip” folks, “in the know”, thirtysomething, with a young child and a record of political activism through both song and deed that has begun to make life in your home country uncomfortable, where do you go to find some semblance of peace and home? Many in the States might think somewhere in the Carribean, or Europe. Nina Simone lived in Barbados, and ended up spending many years in Europe. But in between that, she lived in the oldest republic on the continent of Africa, the Republic of Liberia.
Liberia has both gotten much bad press and suffered much in real terms over the last three decades. The story that is rarely told however, is of a Republic that stood for 147 years from 1847 to 1980, without major disturbance or Civil War. Liberia is a country who’s population is made up of 16 ethnic groups including the Grebo, Kru, Kpelle, Mandingo and Bassa, descendants of freed blacks from the United States of America, descendants of captured blacks freed from slave ships headed to the new world, and blacks from various nations and territories in the Carribean. When Nina Simone stepped off a Pan Am Jet at Robertsfield International Airport in the mid 70s, she was stepping foot in a country that had a post war economic growth rate second only to Japan’s, spurred on by President Tubman’s “Open Door Policy.” It was also a country on the door step of it’s first successful coup d’etat.
Nina Simone was already a highly regarded artist around the world by the 1970s. She had a classical and gospel trained background and was highly regarded by jazz audiences as well. She was also known for being highly outspoken and active in the struggle of black people for human rights. Her song, “Mississippi Goddamn” was a classic of Civil Rights protest music that got her banned in the state sung about, and another song, written with the great Weldon Irvine, “Young, Gifted, and Black”, became a similar anthem during the days of Black conscisousness and Black Power, taken to even higher noteriety by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. By the time she went to Liberia she’d been friends with various figures in Civil Rights and Black Power movements, married and divorced, and lived in Barbados. She also had income tax problems.
It was Miriam Makeba, the great South African singer who was very vocal both on apartied in her native country, as well as segregation in America, who suggested she go to Liberia. Makeba was herself by the early ’70s based in the West African nation of Guniea. She was also married to the man who laid the phrase “Black Power” on America, Stokely Carmichael, now calling himself Kwame Toure, a name in tribute to African leaders Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Sekou Toure of Guniea.
Makeba, a good friend of Simone, was going through similar repression in the United States for her outspoken political stances and her marriage to the government watched Carmichael. It was she who specifically suggested Liberia as the best country in Africa for Simone to reside.
Simone explains Makeba’s reasoning:
“Liberia and America were connected through history in a positive way, and Liberian culture and society reflected that. It was a good place to start for any Afro-American looking to reconcile themselves to their own history.”
At that point, Ms. Simone’s story became personal for me because it was my family’s. My own father, Herman Hopkins, was told the same thing in 1959, which led to his own move to Liberia. He would remain there until 1980, moving back to the Bay Area of California one week before the coup that toppled the old regime. He was granted Liberian citizenship in 1962 and married my mother, Dorothy, a Liberian, in 1964. So Ms. Simone’s story has great personal resonance for me, put yourself in current America, looking at Liberia, a post conflict country struggling to heal itself, part of many people (Anthony Bourdain)’s stupid Africa jokes, and it takes me back into a time when a Black American could actually consider it BETTER to live in Liberia than in the U.S of A, which an Elijah Muhammed or Pat Robertson would both describe as Babylon the Great.
Dad said it was a Nigerian acquaintence in college who suggested Liberia as the perfect country to satisfy curiousity about Africa. Nina Simone elucidates the reason an African American would hear that suggestion in this way:
“She (Miriam Makeba) was smart enough to realize that modern Africa might overpower an innocent African American like me, and so for my first step she chose Liberia, a place where I could relish the differences and yet feel secure with the similarities.”
Simone goes on to paint a moving portrait of Liberia in the 1970s, argurably it’s last period of prosperity, and also details how Africa in the form of Liberia was very personally gratifiying to people like my dad, his American friends such as Oliver Campbell, Hardy Mathews, John Reeves, Walter Smith, and Cyrus Peters, even though they were not stars. Dad always reminded me after those years of the Indian father character in Denzel Washington’s “Mississippi Massala.” His whole time back in what was supposed to be his “home” of the U.S, he was thinking about how he could get back to where he could function the best, Liberia.
Simone entered Liberia in the early ’70s in the early days of the transition from President William V.S Tubman, to President William R Tolbert. She said she was given a grand welcome in Liberia, and most people she encountered had at least a few of her records. Nobody asked her to perform, nobody asked her to do any benefits for poor children, she was welcomed into Liberia to enjoy Liberian hospitality, as she understood it:
“Liberians are naturally affectionate, open people, proud of their country, and the fact that a famous black American had decided to come home-which was what they called it, to stay, meant something special to them.”
Simone was not the first black American to fall under Liberia’s spell. Bill Russell, from my hometown of Oakland, California, 11 time NBA champion, also had a strong connection to the country in the 1960s. Russell would go to Liberia every summer to check on his rubber farm, in the care of a Mr. Clareance Holder. It was his plan to emigrate to Liberia at the end of his playing career. Ms. Simone describes the feeling thusly:
“I wouldn’t have believed it before I arrived, but Liberia did feel like home and I loved everything about it.”
“Liberia was a release; after all those years of being a wife, mother, activist and star all at the same time, I was just a mother with her child happy in school and nobody looking over my shoulder telling me what to do.”
Suddenly Ms. Simone went from struggling within the society of her birth to having a place amongst the top of Liberian society. Miriam Makeba selected six wealthy Liberian men for her to choose from to find a new husband and romantic partner.
Simone’s song “Liberian Calypso” immortalizes a famous experience she had in Liberia. She was at a club called “The Maze” in Monrovia, a small club frequented by what we call in Liberia, “the big shots.” She was sitting up drinking champagne and she said the music and the champagne got good to her. The music was mostly from the U.S, being the mid 70s one could imagine it was the hottest of soul and funk that had made it overseas. Simone got up on a table and stripped until her brown skin was bared completely naked, and the big shots of Liberia got a hell of a kick from seeing the Princess getting down “in the raw.” She was afraid she would get kicked out of the country, but she found out President Tolbert himself went to the club the next day hoping to catch a repreat performance. To which Simone thought, “This is my kind of country.”
Her time in Liberia also had permanent effects on her life in various ways. One was a reconnection with her estranged father, who had passed some years ago. She says she was taken to a very well dressed witch doctor, in a suit and tie, normal looking, who showed her a method of communicating with her father. From then on, she called upon her dad in times of need.
She had a great romance with Liberian newspaper man C.C Dennis, and just missed dying as his wife in the 1980 coup. She eventually moved on to Europe and continued her carrer there, but she always wanted to return to Liberia, and it held a special place in her heart.
Ironically, Simone was in the same position many who lived in Liberia prior to the disturbances were in. Her Liberia was gone, even as she lived on. This is a reality Liberians born and native to the country had to face as well. A little peek of the problems Liberia would have was spied in one scene where 17 cops came to her door attempting to have sex with her because they were jealous she was with a foreign national. However, also indicitave of the old Liberia was that she was able to drive them off, and they were sternly reprimanded by a big shot woman the next day. But such lawlessness of the poor police and military class would become common during the next thirty years of social upheavel, and continue to be a problem now.
Simone kept a copy of the video tape where Cecil Dennis, the son of her Liberian boyfriend, and the other officals of the Tolbert government were executed by firing squad on the beach in April of 1980. From time to time after that, when she wanted to remember those days, she’d pull it out and watch it. Though it may seem morbid, for her it was a means of remembering the people and times she had in Liberia. Something I saw my father and many relatives do as well. And so, life in Liberia became another flavor in Nina Simone’s brew that she served with sass and class, to audiences for the rest of her natural life and beyond.