In a sprawling essay at Guernica, writer and journalist Katherina Grace Thomas turns a lens on the three years Nina Simone spent in Liberia in the mid-1970s. Thomas paints a portrait of the nation before its Civil War, teeming with opulence and possibility. Black Americans like Simone, as well was artists and political leaders from newly independent countries in Africa, flocked to Liberia to exchange ideas and enjoy the high life at late-night discotheques.
Simone moved to Monrovia in 1974 on the invitation of South African singer Miriam Makeba. Simone had been disheartened by the American struggle for civil rights, as well as the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and her friends Malcolm X and Langston Hughes. Liberian president William J. Tolbert, Jr. had developed a progressive agenda that spoke the language of black consciousness and narrowed the gap between the native-born and the country’s educated elite. For a time, Liberia was a black utopia that provided Simone — an interpreter of the American songbook and preserver of black vocal traditions — a much-needed respite.
But no matter the rousing depths of her voice and repertoire—“Four Women”(“My skin is black, my arms are long, my hair is woolly, and my back is strong”);“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (“Your soul’s intact”); a cover of Billy Taylor’s“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” (“Jonathan Livingston Seagull ain’t got nothin’ on me,” she once improvised); “I Shall Be Released” (“Any day now, any day now”)—she still felt that white America wasn’t listening. (She frequently admonished audiences for the same, glaring and employing long pauses to enforce Carnegie Hall rules at jazz festivals.) Simone’s personal life wasn’t much brighter. Her turbulent marriage to the Harlem police detective Andy Stroud had ended, and she was grieving her father’s death. After a stint living in Barbados, where she dated the Prime Minister Errol Barrow, she and Lisa were back in the US, living in a Manhattan apartment; mounting financial troubles forced the sale of their Mount Vernon home. So when Miriam Makeba called in August 1974 and invited them to Liberia, Simone agreed. Makeba was due to meet Stephen Tolbert, the president’s brother, there. He was funding Zaire ’74, the Kinshasa music festival that would accompany the Rumble in the Jungle boxing fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that fall; Makeba was on the lineup, along with James Brown, B.B. King, and Bill Withers.
“Africa, half a world away from New York,” Simone wrote in her memoir.“Maybe I could find some peace there, or a husband. Maybe it would be like going home.”