• Dr Ege

Four Women, Nina Simone & the theme of Self-Definition

Updated: Feb 21, 2021

My name is...

On 13 February 2018, I entered Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Wiltshire, England for the recording of my debut album, Four Women: Music for Solo Piano by Price, Kaprálová, Bilsland and Bonds. The recording was the product of my then-burgeoning work as a pianist-scholar with a keen focus on repertoire by women from the first half of the twentieth century. I brought my research on Florence Price (1887–1957) and Margaret Bonds (1913–1972) alongside my growing interest in the Czech composer Vítezslava Kaprálová (1915–1940) and the British composer Ethel Bilsland (1892–1982). As my vision for the recording began to emerge, so did a name that would foreground crucial histories at the heart of my work: Four Women.

Artwork by Jennifer Binnie

In 1966, Nina Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) released a song called “Four Women.” With each of the four verses, she told the stories of different African American women. The women—Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches—are somewhat trapped in their stereotype while simultaneously seeking their own self-definition. The music and lyrics guide the listener through this tension and culminate in a defiant proclamation of the Self.

My skin is black.

My arms are long.

My hair is woolly.

My back is strong.

Strong enough to take the pain

Inflicted again and again.

What do they call me?

My name is Aunt Sarah.

My skin is yellow.

My hair is long.

Between two worlds

I do belong.

My father was rich and white

He forced my mother late one night.

What do they call me?

My name is Saffronia.

My skin is tan.

My hair is fine.

My hips invite you.

My mouth is like wine.

Whose little girl am I?

Anyone who has money to buy.

What do they call me?

They call me Sweet Thing.

My skin is brown.

My manner is tough.

I’ll kill the first mother I see

My life has been rough.

I’m awfully bitter these days

Because my parents were slaves.

What do they call me?

My name is Peaches.

When “Four Women” entered the airwaves, controversy arose around the portrayal of the protagonists, particularly in light of the stereotypes they brought to mind. Evocations of the Mammy, Tragic Mulatto, Jezebel and Sapphire were tethered to the verses of Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches, respectively. Some black radio stations deemed the song offensive and refused to play it. Simone had not intended to portray black women offensively, but she did intend to highlight key, unpalatable truths around black women’s (re/re-)presentation, as she explained in her autobiography:

The women in the song are black, but their skin tones range from light to dark and their ideas of beauty and their own importance are deeply influenced by that. All the song did was to tell what entered the minds of most black women in America when they thought about themselves: their complexions, their hair—straight, kinky, natural, which?—and what other women thought of them. Black women didn’t know what the hell they wanted because they were defined by things they didn’t control, and until they had the confidence to define themselves they’d be stuck in the same mess forever.

In the same way that the "Four Women" protagonists were caught between the tension of self-definition and a context that Other-ed their existence, Simone was, to a certain extent, also trapped. She aspired to be a classical pianist and planned to study at the Curtis Institute of Music. However, she was rejected on the grounds of her race. Simone, as we know, experienced great success as a jazz and popular music artist; but, like the four women in her song, the double jeopardies of race and gender dictated her path.

The power of Simone’s story and the power of “Four Women” lies in the subject’s ownership of a self-determined, non-objectified personal narrative. In Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, bell hooks encapsulates the subject-object polarity with the following summary:

As subjects, people have the right to define their own reality, establish their own identities, name their history. As objects, one’s reality is defined by others, one’s identity created by others, one’s history named only in ways that define one’s relationship to those who are subject.

With my Four Women, I sought to emphasize the theme of self-definition. This materialized in my endeavour to give voice to each composer, and to inevitably give voice to myself as a no-longer-burgeoning pianist-scholar and as a female classical musician of African descent. I wanted tell the musical stories of Price, Kaprálová, Bilsland and Bonds: four women who were not immune to prejudice, yet carved an existence for themselves beyond the confines of social expectations.

I deliberated over the possible controversy in my choice to not focus solely on the musical stories of black women composers. But I could not deny that Price, Kaprálová, Bilsland and Bonds, in particular, had had a significant impact on my personal journey—from the music of Price and Bonds that opened my eyes to a world where black classical lives exist, matter and thrive; through the bold and brilliant aesthetic of Kaprálová that resisted definition in relation to the men around her; to the miniatures of Bilsland that catalysed my first (and highly auspicious) women composer-centred programme.

I knew that there would be great power in me telling these musical stories and that, in doing so, I would be defining my own reality, establishing my own identity, and naming my own history. The bigger controversy was that Simone had very little choice in the stories she could tell. Therefore, in the naming of this album, I intended for my Four Women to centre black women’s agency and self-definition, and to honour Nina Simone alongside a re-imagined history of Eunice Waymon, the classical pianist that we will never know.

The album was produced by Wave Theory Records, an independent Bristol-based label established by the BAFTA- and Ivor Novello Award-winning film composer Dan Jones. Composer Simon Birch oversaw the editing and mastering process. Four Women was released on 4 May 2018 and thus went out into the world my negotiation of the subject-object polarity, my unhearing of the internalised dissonances between race, gender and classical music, and my proclamation of the Self.

...Samantha Ege

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