TALIB KWELI & HI-TEK / “For Women”
Anybody can tell you how it is. What we putting down right here is how it is and how it could be. —Talib Kweli, from the introduction to “Africa Dream”While I can’t say Talib Kweli’s version of “Four Women” (which he titled slightly differently, in deference to its usually being performed in the first person) is my favorite version of the song, it is the most interesting version I know. Hip-hop is a now-obsessed culture, both for better and for worse. There are very few, if any, successful rap records that have the historical breadth and sweep of a song like “Four Women.” But instead of being limited by the ‘now-ism’ of hip-hop, Kweli embraces the truism, rewriting Nina Simone’s metaphoric archetypes as far more literal characters. Compare the description of Aunt Sarah in the original with Kweli’s description of the same character:
Nina: My skin is black, my arms are long My hair is wooly and my back is strong Strong enough to take all the pain That’s been inflicted again and again What do they call me? My name is Aunt Sarah
Kweli: Her skin was black like it’s packed with melanin Back in the days of slaves she’d be packin' like Harriet Tubman And, her arms are long and she moves like song Feet with corns, hands with calluses, but the heart is warm And, her hair is wooly and it attract a lot of energy Even negative / She gotta dead that, the head-wrap is a remedy Her back is strong and she’s far from a vagabond This is the back the master’s whip used to crack upon Strong enough to take all the pain, that's been inflicted Again and again and again and again and flip it To the love of her children / Nothing else matters What do they call her? / They call her Aunt Sarah.The first thing one notices (aside from the oft-cited verbosity of rap lyrics) is how much more visual and how much less ‘poetic’ the overall effect is. When Kweli describes Aunt Sarah, we see a specific elderly black woman. When Nina describes Aunt Sarah, we are presented with a composite image of elderly black women of a particular time period. The other noticeable difference is the way Kweli recasts the derogatory usage of ‘Auntie.’ In “Four Women,” Aunt Sarah represents elderly black women who have managed to survive, yet are still troubled and hobbled by their painful pasts. In “For Women,” Aunt Sarah is a particular elderly black woman who has transformed her painful past via her role as caretaker of her neighborhood’s young people. In a way, Kweli’s “For Women” is a tribute not only to Nina Simone specifically and to ‘our elders’ in general (Kweli mentions both in the intro) but also to the first character, Aunt Sarah. As Kweli recites the tragic tales of The Creole, ‘Saphronia’; The Prostitute, ‘Sweet Thing’; and The Slavewoman, ‘Peaches,’ my thoughts remain partially with Aunt Sarah—she of the 107 years, dreadlocks, good vibes and optimism. “You figure she’d be bitter in her twilight,” Kweli raps, “But she’s alright, ‘cause she done seen the circle of life.” Like Aunt Sarah herself, Kweli uses the power of optimism to transform “Four Women,” a tale of tragedy and pain, into “For Women,” a tribute to perseverance, struggle and, eventually, triumph. —Mtume ya Salaam Four more women I dig Talib’s lyrics. A lot. Overall, it’s an inventive re-telling of Nina’s timeless (although historically grounded) tale. However, what was unfulfilling for me was the music, or the lack of music. I know, I know, the beat is the music—but even beats can be hipper than loops if you understand beat as trance, yet, even if you don’t, strictly taken as “the beats is the music,” the music of this was thin, certainly thinner, much, much thinner than what Talib did with the lyrics, which all leads me to Joy Denalane’s take on Nina’s classic song. What Ms. Denalane does is start with an interesting supposition, suppose we get four different women to sing, each woman taking a different verse, and suppose we recast it in a soul/R&B vein, what would we get. And, oh yeah, what about having each women sing in a different language (Portuguese, Shona, French and German). So now what happens is that “Four Women” is opened up to the international experiences of women of African descent. The women are Sara Tavares (born in Portugal of Cape Verdean parents); Chinowiso, from Zimbabwe; Deborah (whose parentage I don’t know); and afro-German Joy Denalane. This version is immediately recognizable as Nina’s song, but totally unrecognizable in terms of what they are saying because we are getting a mélange of tongues detailing a tableau that is both well-known and at the same time highly personal, plus they change some of the lyrics and do not present them in the order of the original song. Joy calls her version "Vier Frauen: Quatro Mudjer/Vakadzi Vana/Quatre Femme." This is a very, very interesting version. Joy is not the only person to think of this approach. The Daughters of Soul with Simone (Nina’s daughter Lisa), Joyce Kennedy, Sandra St. Victor and Nona Hendryx also use this approach, but except for Nona, The Daughters rather than reciting a personal tale seem to me to be grandstanding, seem to be aware that they are performing for an audience, but Joy’s version, even though I don’t understand everything they are saying, has a feeling that what each of them is saying is something they not only believe, but to a certain extent have experience or are currently living. As for Nina, she has so many versions to choose from. The one included here is newly released on a “dual disc” (DVD on one side, CD on the other) and is taken from a 1969 Harlem, NY festival. Two things lept out at me in watching Nina sing “Four Women.” One was her absolute mastery of the piano. Even though you don’t get many shots of her hands, you can hear what she is doing, how she is leading the music, and it is entrancing. Two is that she didn’t use histrionics or busy gestures, most of the time her face is mask-like in its stillness, but this is not a placid stillness, rather this is the trance state, and it is so wonderful how Nina can reach deep inside you while hardly even moving. No showing off. No making faces. Not even exaggerated concentration, you know, like when people are pretending they are doing something deep. This is the real deal, which is, after all, what one expects and, invariably, what one gets from Nina Simone. The real deal. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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