Rebel Art Fridays: Malvina Reynolds, Nina Simone, and the importance of being “nice”

The past week has been, for me personally and I’m sure for many others, one of the darkest and most deflating of the entire Trump era.

The explosion of deadly white nationalist violence, in the name of our racist President, was not surprising. We’ve seen this type of violence countless times in the past three years; the El Paso shooter was just a little more “successful” in his terrorism, and he made the link to Donald Trump just a little more plain.

And the President’s hollow, craven “leadership” in this moment of national crisis was hardly a shock, nor was his doubling down on overt racism, on the weaponization of immigration enforcement in Mississippi, on the same hateful words and deeds that inspired the El Paso shooter to kill.

Trump baby no caption
The President* staging a photo op with an infant who was orphaned by the right wing terrorist attack in El Paso.

No, what broke me this week, what has left me so defeated, is how, even in moments of moral clarity like these – when this empty man’s profound unfitness for this office are on the plainest possible display – our collective inclination is to shield our eyes.

The President is trampling every norm of basic human decency – there are terrorists killing in his name! – a massive portion of our population is living in fear, we’re all secretly wondering if its too risky to go to the fucking farmers market this weekend …

and yet the conversation the past few days has inexplicably shifted away from the stark, dangerous reality we are living, and towards that age-old dodge: is our reaction to this madness appropriate?

Is it really right, our Media is breathlessly wondering, to call this openly racist President a “racist”? Shouldn’t we be careful about politicizing these inherently political events? Isn’t it a little dangerous to publicly call out the powerful, prominent people who are bankrolling this malevolent presidency? We understand you’re mad – and you’re entitled to that, of course – but can’t you be a little more polite, a little nicer about it, don’t you have a responsibility to turn the temperature down a little bit?

This week’s Rebel Art Friday is directed at that unique form of cowardice, that hopelessly naive tut-tutting that looks profound injustice squarely in the eye, and then pivots to asking whether those fighting against the injustice ought to be using their indoor voices.

We’re highlighting two artists who had the courage, at the height of intense racial violence in 1964, to push back hard against the voices urging politeness in the face of  evil.

Indeed, both of the songs below are a declaration, in no uncertain terms, that those voices demanding niceties, insisting that the only prudent course is to  “go slow,” are complicit, and that righteous anger and rage – a refusal to “be nice” – is a powerful weapon in times like these.

1964 saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, followed by a violent backlash: race riots in multiple American cities, and a deluge of racially-motivated murder and terrorism.

It was a brutal, frightening time to be an American – especially a Black American. But, just as now, there were plenty of Americans clinging to a false sense of normalcy, more concerned with politeness in the face of horrific violence than they were about the violence itself.

It is presumably that backdrop that inspired the diminutive activist folk singer Malvina Reynolds to write “It Isn’t Nice.”

I love “It Isn’t Nice” for its poetic economy, the way Ms. Reynolds captures an historic struggle in just a handful of carefully-crafted rhymes, the way she summons a withering condemnation of her cowering contemporaries with one, simple couplet: “You were quiet just like mice / now you say we aren’t nice.”

And to my mind, the kicker, “But if that is Freedom’s price, we don’t mind,” is a remarkably subtle “fuck you” to the “be more polite” crowd. Because the implicit underpinning of the “be more polite” dodge is that those doing the scolding just don’t want to be made to feel uncomfortable while the battle outside is raging.

Ms. Reynolds’ sly “we don’t mind” serves as a reminder that those of us in the fight (and infinitely moreso, those feeling the brunt of the injustice) are enduring more than a little discomfort. We don’t mind, so why the fuck should we care if you do?

Malvina III

More than anything though, I love the dissonance of Ms. Reynolds’ sunny, old-fashioned voice, the warm, jovial melody, against the stark reality “It Isn’t Nice” is unpacking.

This is a song you’d sing around the campfire, toasting marshmallows and linking arms, but its far-less-rosy message is that kumbaya activism, when up against real evil, doesn’t always cut it.

A  variation of that same tonal rope-a-dope is more dramatically and powerfully present in another 1964 recording, one of the towering masterpieces of American Rebel Art, Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”

There is so much to love and admire about this extraordinary recording, not least of all the way the entire performance – both the spoken asides and the structure of the song itself – seems designed to hoodwink the Carnegie Hall audience into thinking they’re in on the joke … only to turn around and blast them with brutal truths.

Ms. Simone teases the audience from the start, cheerfully announcing the song title, cracking a joke about “showtunes,” to boisterous, comforted laughter.

Nina Carnegie II

As the performance progresses though, the tone shifts. The imagery gets darker, more urgent, more personal, and the song’s thesis – a broadside against the voices who have been telling Black America to be nice, be polite, and “go slow” – starts to emerge.

By the time Ms. Simone catches her breath, and wryly observes “I bet you thought I was kidding,” the knowing, confident titters in the audience are all but gone.

What follows is as powerful an articulation of righteous rage – of a defiant refusal to be polite in the face of bald inequality – as I’ve heard:

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie

Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying “Go slow!”

There is no greater, no braver, Rebel Artist in American history than Nina Simone.

When she closes “Mississippi Goddam” with the potent, contemptuous line “you don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality,” it’s not hard to imagine her boldly and defiantly addressing every member of the audience at Carnegie Hall that night.

The deep South is without question a goddamn nightmare, you can imagine Ms. Simone thinking, but it’s the weak-kneed comfortables in this room – telling Black America to “talk real fine” and “go slow” while violence and hatred rages – who are in need of this particular, stirring reckoning.


This has been a hard week, a disheartening week, a frightening week.But the forces propping up President Trump are counting on our feeling deflated, they are counting on our losing our sense of outrage, on our putting a lid on our anger. We cannot afford to give them what they want.

I take succor, and inspiration, from Malvina Reynolds and Nina Simone, and from these songs – written in a violent pressure-cooker a half century ago – that boldly push back on the voices scolding us to “be polite,” to “go slow” in the face of injustice and evil.

When I listen to “Mississippi Goddam,” the raw power of Nina Simone’s voice, her words, and her rage, I’m reminded of just how powerful a weapon rage and anger can be. And as hard as this week has been, as darker, still, it’s going to get, that thought gives me hope.

Bonus Materials:

There is an abundance of good literature out there right now about the importance of anger as a political tool, about how we all need to reject the voices telling us to play nice, be polite, and “go slow.” Seek it out, you won’t be disappointed. 

But the book that has spoken to me most powerfully, that has rattled around in my brain for months, is Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Ms Traister is an essential voice in this fraught moment in our history, and one that we should all be reading, heeding, and emulating as we confront what lies ahead.

Finally, a choice quote about anger, and its intersection with art, from the American Master we lost this past week:

“I get angry about things and then go on and work.”

– Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

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