“Michael Brown is dead, and they still haven’t arrested that policeman,” Kim Nalley sings in anguished alto tones on “Ferguson Blues,” one of two original songs about the killing of African American teens on her new self-released CD, “Blues People.”
Her second song, “Big Hooded Black Man,” grew out of an argument Nalley had with an in-law about the Trayvon Martin case.
“He referred to Trayvon as ‘a big, scary black man,’” Nalley said of her in-law, who is a white Chicago cop. “He wasn’t big at all. It made me realize that for some people all Black men are scary. I was so angry, the song just rushed out in minutes.”
The two tunes have been greeted with mixed receptions – positive, especially from African American musicians, and sometimes negatively from white members of her audiences.
“If I’m doing civil rights songs from 50 years ago, everybody is just excited and happy,” the San Francisco singer said. “When I do things that are now, I’ve seen crowds of people just get up and walk away. It gives me a better idea of what maybe Nina Simone had to go through when she wrote ‘Mississippi Goddamn.’ It’s interesting to get a little taste of that now.”
Nalley, who is currently working on her doctorate in history at U.C. Berkeley, has sung throughout the United States and Europe. For six years, she owned the now-defunct North Beach club Jazz at Pearl’s.
Her new CD deals with various aspects of Black life in America. On the oft-performed “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess,” Nalley interjects about her hands being rough from picking cotton.
“There is nothing that’s easy for Black people when the cotton is high,” she explained, referencing lyricist DuBose Heyward’s original opening lines.
Nalley addresses upward mobility with a gospel choir-like arrangement of “Movin’ on Up,” the theme song from “The Jeffersons.” And she delivers three double-entendre blues numbers – Bessie Smith’s “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” Georgia White’s “I’ll Keep Sittin’ on It (If I Can’t Sell it)” (about a chair) and Dinah Washington’s “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” (about a trombone).
“I take a kinda Angela Davis view on this material,” she said of the naughty songs. “I view it as feminist material that speaks to a woman’s needs and a woman’s pleasure.”
Some of her upcoming performances, all in San Francisco, include a concert at the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation, 4439 Third St., on Saturday, Oct. 24; two sets at Biscuits and Blues, 401 Mason St., on Saturday, Nov. 21; and her annual gospel Christmas show at Feinstein’s at Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., on Sunday, Dec. 20.
Nalley lives in San Francisco with her husband and their three-year-old daughter, and is expecting a second girl in January.