Why you should care
Because she partied like it was 1999 ... in 1974.
- In the 1970s, soul legend Nina Simone moved to Liberia to escape her troubled life in what she called the “United Snakes of America.”
- One wild night, she took off her dress and danced naked on tables in a discotheque in Monrovia.
This February, Fodder On My Wings, one of the last studio albums of soul legend Nina Simone, was reissued for digital streaming. Recorded in 1982 in France, where Simone lived out her final years, it bears the mark of introspection and anguish but also includes an exuberant tune rehashing one of the happiest days of her life.
On the Caribbean riddim of “Liberian Calypso,” she narrates calmly but cheerily in her deep timbre the night of unrestrained delight she spent at a Monrovia discotheque in September 1974.
At age 41, Simone uprooted and moved to West Africa for a new lease on life, having already evolved from child prodigy to tortured genius. As a teenager, she abandoned her dreams of becoming the world’s first Black classical pianist to pursue popular music that would pay her bills. Eventually, she focused on socially conscious music as America — especially the North Carolinian’s native South — remained steeped in segregation. Those politically charged songs hurt her career; the mostly white industry boycotted her music and radio stations sent back her records — cracked in two.
Hanging out with Nina was something else because she was somebody who liked a very good time.
James Dennis, whose father dated Simone
By the late 1960s, she was deeply troubled and prone to regular bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts. “I can’t stand the pressure much longer,” she wrote in the polemic “Mississippi Goddam.” “Somebody say a prayer.” Death — from the assassination of her neighbor Malcolm X to cancer felling her best friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry — and domestic strife with her husband/manager, Andy Stroud, led her to seek other shores. First Barbados, where she had an affair with the married prime minister, then Liberia, on the invitation of friend Miriam Makeba as Simone was being hounded in the U.S. for tax-dodging.
Makeba, the South African singer, was also known for her stance against institutionalized racial segregation, and the apartheid government in her homeland had even revoked her passport. So Makeba and her husband, Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Black Panther Party, were shuffling between Guinea and nearby Liberia.
At the time, Liberia, a country of freed American slaves, had yet to be subjected to the deteriorating influence of coups and civil war. It had a liberal government, one of the best hospitals on the continent and a decent expatriate community. There were reportedly four weekly flights from New York on Pan Am Airlines bringing new records and other imports while taking shrimp and other exports to the West.
Simone fell in love with the scene. She got a cottage by the beach and spent her nights partying with the country’s elite, taking a couple of lovers. “Nina became very attracted to my father,” James Dennis, then-president of the Press Union of Liberia and son of wealthy businessman Charles Cecil Dennis, tells OZY. “Then they got together. My mother had died and my father was a single, handsome gentleman, and he got attracted to Nina from her music.”
That night at The Maze, the Monrovian discotheque, Simone was in her element. She was dancing to American pop music and drinking to her heart’s content while the movers and shakers of society grooved along. Then, to the surprise of everyone, the superstar suddenly took off her dress and danced blissfully naked on tabletops all night. It was a much-needed relief for a woman struggling to shed multiple burdens. “He [the Lord] brought me home to Liberia and all other places are inferior,” she would later sing on “Liberian Calypso.”
“Hanging out with Nina was something else because she was somebody who liked a very good time,” laughs James Dennis, now 91, who was at the club that night and whose baby grand piano at home was often Simone’s plaything. “She was very emotional and felt very much at home.”
Because she wasn’t performing much, her stay in the country was largely a hedonistic exercise that soon drained all her money. In 1977, Simone moved to Europe, where her mental health problems resurfaced, rather than return to the “United Snakes of America” as she called it. Three years after, a coup toppled the Liberian government and a dozen politicians were executed, including its foreign affairs minister — a son of Charles Cecil Dennis.
But Simone’s spirit-boosting stay in Liberia was a memory that stayed with her forever. “She always said living in Africa was the happiest time in her life,” her longtime friend and collaborator Al Schackman said in the 2016 documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? “She could just be there, enjoy herself. She didn’t have to sing at all.” Little wonder then that it inspired a song about the joys of a night when a young, gifted and Black woman decided to be carefree.