I love Nina Simone.
She makes me feel like a powerful woman inside.
I know Talib Kweli loves Nina, too. He’s spoken about his love for her in his songs, interviews and elsewhere.
Last Sunday, Kweli did a show at Los Angeles’ Club Nokia at LA Live. I made it just in time to see the last hour of his set.
Accompanying him on stage in that hour were other strong women, who I’m sure at some time in their lives had also been influenced by Nina Simone.
Res joined Kweli on a number of songs, her voice just as amazing as the women who she was covering, like Fleetwood Mac’s famous “Dreams” and Mary J. Blige in “I Try.”
Jean Grae, Kweli’s female counterpart, then blew up the stage, charming everyone with her usual grit and raw rapping.
With Kweli’s band lead by keyboardist Yuki and drummer extraordinaire, Daru Jones as the backdrop, it was turning out to be a great show.
They even came back for an encore and played three extra songs.
And then it happened.
In what was sure to be their last song of the evening, due to the sheer energy and force behind it, Kweli brought Res back on stage and the band started playing the ever-familiar notes to Nina Simone’s hypnotizing “Sinnerman“.
The keys came on first. The rest of the band followed, and right away the whole room was caught in a daze.
Throughout the years, I have seen Talib Kweli perform a hundred times, no exaggeration. His live show is commanding, but nothing has made me feel the way I did watching this breath-taking rendition of one of my favorite songs of all time.
We were all in a call-and-response circle, the people in the audience were swaying back and forth, many with their eyes closed.
We were clapping along to the beat as was Kweli on stage. It turned into one of those rare moments where everyone is on the same tip and the people are elevating along with the artist.
I was literally thinking to myself “This is one the most beautiful moments for me ever at a club…”
Commotion, noise, shit’s getting crazy around me all of a sudden, and my attention reluctantly gets pulled from this mesmerizing music to a violent fight that has started between two women in the audience behind me.
It was like when you’re having a wonderful dream and you wake up all of a sudden and think, “Noooooo….come back to me….”
As two stupid girls threw each other in the pit and started pulling hair, wrestling on the ground, and slamming into people around them, the entire audience backed up, their attention focused on this fight that was showing no signs of letting up. A dude got involved, presumably one of their boyfriends.
I was stupefied that something like this was happening during the most touching moment of the entire show.
These dumb girls got in a fight in the middle of a Nina Simone track?
Three or four security guards jumped in yet the situation was no where near being stifled.
They had ruined Nina for me.
I looked up on stage, and Kweli, being the professional that he is, got on the mic and tried to calm things down. He started speaking about Japan and how people are dying there and these girls are over here acting in drunken ignorance.
As this crazy scene was unfolding in front of me, I stood frozen in place, shocked that the amazing energy created in that song could allow for this to happen at that very moment.
My heart was broken at the irony of this. That this horrible fight took place in the middle of “Sinnerman”.
I thought it was over. I assumed Kweli and his people would walk out and keep it movin’.
Talib Kweli started clapping. Res started clapping. The keys came back on playing those bewitching “Sinnerman” notes.
The audience joined in to clap. The music followed, and they took up right where they had left off. And you know what part of the song they just happened to be coming to?
In the face of this horrible, ignorant chaos, Kweli, followed by everyone on stage and then in the audience, threw their fists in the air and chanted along to Nina’s message, that couldn’t have come at a better time:
“POWER! POWER! POWER! POWER!”
The music went faster and faster, the band released their energy on us, and we were all, somehow, back in that wonderful vibe that I thought for sure was lost.
I got to hear my anticipated ending to an age-defying song.
I walked back to my car in stupefied shock.
What the hell just went down, LA?
How do these things happen amidst powerful, positive forces?
I was starting to feel embarrassed for my city when I noticed a group of five girls walking back to their own car in front of me. One of them was wearing a peace sign on her purse, and they were all laughing, singing, and talking about how much they loved the show.
I just listened to them sing, and realized that LA is beautiful. Dumb people are everywhere, and they don’t represent LA, hip hop or anything else but ignorance.
And there was no reason to be embarrassed.
I was thankful for Talib Kweli’s professionalism and heart. He simply stood on stage calming the situation that the four security guards couldn’t even control.
With his words.
Although I was never able to see Nina Simone live before she passed, I was honored that Kweli, who has opened up for Nina in the past, and who evidently feels her music in his core , shared with us a part of her through his “Sinnerman” rendition.
It truly was one of the most Powerful moments of any live show that I have attended.
And nothing could ruin that Power for me.
words/photos: Ani Yapundzhyan