This week I finally watched What Happened, Miss Simone, Liz Garbus’s fine, attentive documentary about the marvel that was Nina Simone. Simone’s story is as heartbreaking as inspiring: She was almost impossibly talented as singer, pianist, songwriter, composer and interpreter, and she was a flawed human being, a survivor of abuse, a person with a mental-health problem. She was extraordinarily brave. And that bravery was not always enough.
I’ve written before about my admiration for Simone’s work, but my thoughts this week crossed with Drone Bomb Me, the newest single by a singer called Anohni. Anohni was previously known as Antony Hegarty, of the Mercury Prize-winning act Antony and the Johnsons. Six-foot-four, white, born in England, Anohni appears nothing like Simone, and yet there is much that links them: piano, lyricism, voices like strong-winged birds. I am far from the first person to note the commonalities. “[Nina] represents the most courageous relationship that a musician can try to have with society,” Anohni told the Guardian in 2005, “to engage with it, and to scream at the top of her lungs for what’s righteous.”
Simone’s cause was the African-American civil-rights movement, at a time when this was truly radical (and dangerous). Although Anohni is less single-minded, she has become just as outspoken in recent years, abandoning the poetic opacity of her early work. She speaks and sings with increasing plainness about climate change (4 Degrees), trans rights and, on Drone Bomb Me, the West’s remorseless drone campaigns – this at the risk of alienating earlier, broader audiences. In her statement about this year’s Oscars, where she was nominated for best original song, Anohni described “many of” the gala’s celebrity guests as “trophies of billionaire corporations whose only intention it is to manipulate you into giving them your consent and the last of your money.” Instead of flying to Los Angeles for the event, she wrote, “I want to maximize my usefulness and advocate for the preservation of biodiversity and the pursuit of human decency within my sphere of influence.”
I was moved, and even a little emboldened, by Anohni’s remarks. But as with Simone, the most fortunate aspect of this artist’s work is the generosity of its sound. Drone Bomb Me is not bland polemic – it is gorgeous, modern song, a noise of 2016, with dry percussion and slabs of synths from club producer Hudson Mohawke. Anohni is a vivid presence amid all the electronics; her un-effected, overlapping vocals become an immediate dialectic – a set of questions, a conversation about violence, victimhood and complicity. When she slips out of singing to speak two words, basso, it’s as if all those outlooks have coalesced, momentarily, into a single body. “After all,” she says, as if there might actually be an answer in the end. As if we might one day know how it would feel to be free.
Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.
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