Marina Gomberg: Nina Simone illuminated what it means to be free

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marina Gomberg.

I’ve been in a big Nina Simone mood lately, and no amount of listening has yet scratched my itch for her ethereal voice and brilliant ease at the piano.

She was a musical genius and powerful activist, and has often been a conduit for my understanding of the devastatingly unchanged plight of being Black in America.

My hunger to comprehend is insatiable.

Good music has the power to do that, transport us beyond ourselves to a place where we can get a taste of another’s circumstance. And in this moment, that exercise feels fundamental.

Simone says she performed with the hope of making her audience feel something, and with me, she has intense success. There’s an almost feline quality to her voice that sometimes leaves me wondering what’s pain and what’s pleasure for her. Other times, the depth of her sadness and anger are unmistakable and penetrating.

It’s her cover of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” that’s getting most of my time lately. From her album “Silk and Soul,” this song is jazzy and soulful with a remarkable levity for a tune about wanting to “break all the chains holding [her].”

If you didn’t know better, you might wonder if it’s a slave song. But it’s not. Even after abolition, the chains remain.

(Rene Perez | AP file photo) On June 27, 1985, Nina Simone performs at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. The jazzy and soulful Simone, who died in 2003, was an activist in the Civil Rights Movement and influenced the likes of Alicia Keys and Aretha Franklin.

I was rewatching the Netflix documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” the other night and heard something in a new context that shook me.

She’s asked by a reporter at one point what “free” means to her. After trying to lob the question back and then struggling to articulate what she says is an almost indescribable feeling, Simone finally lands on the answer.

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: No fear. I mean really, no fear.”

I had to press pause. My eyes burned and what felt like a sizable lump had taken up residence in my throat.

As a woman, a Jew and a lesbian, I am no stranger to fear. And living through a global pandemic as an immune-compromised parent has introduced an additional and weighty amount of worry to my shoulders. The prolonged heightened threat has been challenging.

Even still, as I witness the unyielding and incomprehensible violence against Black people, I’m reminded of my very fortunate position in life — the privilege I carry to usually walk through the world with a foundational sense of safety.

I let my Nina Simone playlist advance to the next song and on came “Strange Fruit,” a haunting ballad about the lynchings of Black men in the South.

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”

It’s slow and syrupy, a painful reminder of how we continue to keep certain bodies from the freedom only known when a person isn’t under constant and literally suffocating threat.

On Tuesday, the jury in Derek Chauvin’s trial found him guilty on all three charges of murdering George Floyd. While it was Chauvin’s trial, it had felt a lot like it was Floyd’s — or even like the court was deciding if it’s legal to exist imperfectly as a Black person in America.

We witnessed some accountability, Miss Simone, but I am sorry we’re still here. I commit myself to continue listening. I hear you when you say, “I wish you could know / What it means to be me / Then you’d see and agree / That every man should be free.”

Marina Gomberg is a communications professional and lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey. You can reach Marina at mgomberg@sltrib.com.

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