Sometimes there’s nothing sweeter than a love rekindled. Watching a red-boned burlesque fire dancer perform over an all-female Black Rock Coalition band’s live rendition of Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell on You,” I looked over the rapt Parisian audience at the Maison des Arts auditorium and thought: They’re falling in love again. It’s good to be black and American in France.
The Valentine’s Day tribute to Nina Simone came just a week after the “Barack Obama in Paris” gallery exhibition closed in Paris’s eleventh arrondissement. In December I was invited to a park dedication ceremony for the renaming of the Parc Clichy-Batignolles-Martin Luther King. I blew it off, but a resurgence of jazz-age-level appreciation for African-Americans seemed afoot in my adopted city.
Dorothy Polley, an expatriate originally from Connecticut, organized her gallery’s exhibit with help from the Democrats Abroad group and Parisian Obama supporters last fall. Thirty French and American painters, inspired by what Obama represents to them personally, created original artwork around this single theme of What Obama Stands For. Dorothy’s Gallery was forced to extend the extremely well-attended exposition from its original November 25 closing date all the way to February 8, renaming it “Barack Obama President: A United World” after his election win.
Even prior to Obama’s inauguration, folks worldwide speculated about how the image of a black president might affect the country’s standing internationally. One of the side-effects, at least in Paris, seems to be a renewed appreciation for us black folk. I pass the Collège Rosa Parks junior high school (est. January 2007) in my neighborhood nearly every day, but I was still surprised to get an invite from Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë in the mail three months ago about a new Martin Luther King parc. Clarence Jones, King’s former lawyer and co-writer of the “I Have a Dream” speech, was present to inaugurate the seventeenth arrondissement park.
In the early 1990s, Paris erected a plaque over the door of Richard Wright’s longtime former residence at 14 rue Monsieur Prince, and in 2001 the city dedicated the Place Joséphine Baker, a square in the Montparnasse area. Still, I couldn’t help but note the synchronicity of the Parc Clichy-Batignolles-Martin Luther King coming about weeks after America appointed its first black prez.
And then the pièce de résistance: the annual Sons d’Hiver festival in nearby Créteil placed a Nina Simone tribute on its program, to be performed by an all-woman, nearly all black-American incarnation of the Black Rock Coalition. The BRC, founded in 1985, has mounted similar tributes to Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder in the past, but that night was unique. With a coterie of singers including Joi Gilliam (the hiphop gen’s baadasssss answer to Betty Davis), Afro-punk geechee goddess Tamar-Kali, and violin prodigy Mazz Swift-Camlet, the BRC came to bring a taste of bodacious blackness to the City of Light.
An opening set by Yohimbe Brothers—a band of BRC co-founder Vernon Reid (late of Living Colour)—intrigued the French crowd, apparently accustomed to a little avant-garde flavor at the Maison des Arts. Starting with the spirited “Work Song,” the 12-piece band segued into possibly the most famous pop song of Simone’s career two songs in as singer-pianist Angela Johnson careened gracefully into “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”
Both Baltimore and Fodder on My Wings were recorded by Simone in Paris during her years living here in the late 70s/early 80s, but musical director Tamar-Kalichose none of those songs. Instead, scintillating arrangements of “Backlash Blues,” “Go to Hell” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” were served up until little past midnight in a 17-song set that could’ve lasted even longer. (No “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” for instance.) Kali herself spellbound the audience during “I Put a Spell on You,” singing Simone’s bluesy incantation with the sexy accompaniment of performer Maine Anders literally dancing with fire center-stage.
Imani Uzuri ripped through “Sinnerman” with evangelical fervor; Mazz Swift-Camlet took a melancholy turn at the mic on “Lilac Wine”; Joi was characteristically sassy on “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” By the rave-up finale of “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter,” Parisians were more than willing to chance missing the last métro back to Paris for a potential encore from the BRC women.
All this African-American love may very well continue throughout these nascent days of the Obama administration. The Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain is currently planning a major exhibition dedicated to graffiti art for summertime 2009, with an acknowledgment to hiphop’s pioneering Bronx bombers sure to occur. These days, Paris agrees with Nina Simone that “to be young, gifted and black is where it’s at.”