Queen City Nerve

Charlotte's Cultural Pulse

Vanessa Ferguson Pays Tribute to a North Carolina Icon
For Nina

By Ryan Pitkin

November 21, 2019

The video starts with a shot of people milling about in front of a small house on Fred Lyles Circle in Tryon, a town of less than 2,000 people in the mountains of western North Carolina. A few seconds in, you see a woman standing on the porch of the home, curiously peering inside before she eventually occupies not only the space, but the role of an icon who was born in the home in February 1933.

The three-room house in Tryon was once home to Eunice Waymon, better known as legendary singer and activist Nina Simone. The woman peering in the doorway wearing the gray t-shirt and colorful headwrap, a signature style of Simone’s, is Vanessa Ferguson, a talented singer from Greensboro who gained the national spotlight in 2017 as one of the final eight contestants in season 12 of NBC’s The Voice.

She isn’t in Tryon to compete with anyone, however, but to pay homage to one of her biggest influences.

“This is a very small town for her to dive into music,” Ferguson says in the video, fully dressed in the African garb Simone was known to don. “To see where she lived and to see where she went — you know all the different things she was able to do — just being born here in such a small place where I guess you could say no one’s really checking for you, that’s pretty tremendous and it resonates with me that you can come from … a one-bedroom house and go on to do some amazing things.”

Ferguson went on to perform four classic songs from Simone, who passed away in 2003, in a heartfelt performance. It wasn’t her first time paying tribute to the North Carolina luminary, and it won’t be the last.

Between Nov. 22-23, Ferguson will do a run of four tribute performances in the Jazz Room at Stage Door Theater, preceded by a Nov. 22 afternoon session at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s main branch in Uptown, at which Ferguson will lead a discussion about what Simone means to her and the jazz community as a whole. The library event will be the second in a three-part series titled NC Jazz Legends hosted by the North Carolina Arts Council throughout the year, part of a larger music initiative called Come Hear NC.

Speaking over the phone from her home in Greensboro, Ferguson tells Queen City Nerve that she began performing Nina Simone songs with jazz percussionist Larry Q. Draughn Jr. in 2013. The two discussed performing songs from the Civil Rights era that had an impact, and of all the many musicians that came to mind, Simone stood out.

Nina Simone (Photo courtesy of NinaSimone.com)

That fact isn’t surprising. On top of the many musical masterpieces that Simone performed over the years and the impact she had on the fight for racial justice, there are also many parallels between Simone and Ferguson. Both were classically trained as pianists from an early age, both rose to prominence covering previously written songs (many times improving upon them), and both used that momentum to travel the world, performing in nightclubs on a number of different continents.

“It’s almost eerie at times, the parallels, that we share a lot of the same ideas, a lot of the same interests,” Ferguson says, “specifically in terms of her activism — the things that she stood for, the fact that she was very, very strong in knowing who she was and what she wanted.”

While Ferguson’s music is not as outwardly political as some of Simone’s songs were, she says she makes a purposeful effort to embed socially conscious themes in all of her music.

“I’m not where Nina was when she started her activism,” Ferguson says, stating that she has to be conscious of how politically active her music is while she’s still building her career. “Nina had a little bit of money and a little clout, but she sacrificed. I don’t think people really know, she could have made a lot more money. Aretha Franklin was at the top of the charts, she was making love songs, and thinking-music with activism in mind is not necessarily going to be the biggest payday. That was something that Nina sacrificed. Even in my music now, whether it’s a love song or whatever, I’m very mindful of what I’m talking about, and there’s always some sort of message in it for younger people.”

Vanessa Ferguson (Photo by Media Lane Photography)

Ferguson was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was recognized early on for her beautiful voice, which she calls “hereditary.” Her grandmother was known as a great singer, and her mother sang in church choir even while pregnant with Vanessa.

Naturally, Vanessa joined the church choir at a young age, around 4 years old by her guess, and her grandmother put her in piano lessons a year later. At 13 years old, she moved to Greensboro. How she tells it, the move made her think about race for the first time, but not in a way one might think for a young black girl in the South.

Though she remembers feeling as if some teachers treated her differently in a way she said she can’t express in words, her first experience with diversity was mainly a positive one.

“Culturally, ethnically, it was different,” she said. “All the students I went to school with in New York were black, inner-city kids. To come down here and actually see white people, Asian people that were in my age group, that was definitely a positive change.”

It was around that time that Ferguson also experienced a negative change in her life. Upon passing through puberty, Ferguson began to feel sharp pains on a monthly basis. She suffered through it for years before an unrelated medical procedure confirmed what she had long suspected: She had endometriosis, a painful disorder in which tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows on the outside of it.

For eight years, Ferguson took an injection of Depo-Provera every three months. The hormonal contraceptive helped curb effects of her endometriosis, allowing her to pursue her career in music, though she recently came off the prescription after the side effects became too much, putting her “back at square one” for fighting her endometriosis symptoms. 

After graduating high school, Ferguson spent some years touring the East Coast with different bands, until 2009 when she took the front woman role, starting her own band. In 2011, she took up a residency at the world-famous LAN Club in Beijing, China, performing six nights a week. After that, she toured the world with B.B. King’s Blues Club All-Star Band, performing in France, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Croatia, Greece, Portugal, Panama, Colombia and other spots in Central and South America and the Mediterranean.

However, since appearing on The Voice, where she was coached by Alicia Keys and built a valuable network of connections, not to mention a national following, she’s been more focused on her solo work.

She says that, while every band she’s played with has helped to mold her as a musician, life as a solo artist fits her independent spirit.

I enjoy being on stage by myself,” she says. “There’s more control and … I do appreciate not having to consider what anyone else wants to do. It gives me the freedom of putting things together however I want. I can look how I want; I don’t have to deal with the pressures of someone telling me that I have to wear a dress more often, down to the setlist. That’s the benefit of being solo that I get to be who I want to be.”

Vanessa Ferguson

So who does she want to be? Ferguson’s new music is a mix of genres that pulls from her upbringing in gospel and ranges from R&B and soul to pop. Her latest single, “Can’t Let You,” even features some rapping from the versatile Ferguson.

When I ask if those skills were the product of her 2017 marriage to spoken-word poet and rapper Kenneth “Mr. Rozzi” Rozzi, she shoots my theory down in a way that reminds me why making assumptions is never a smart move.

“That’s funny, but no,” Ferguson says, laughing before setting me straight. “I used to freestyle a long, long time ago. I’m a child and a student of rap. I was born in ‘85 in Brooklyn, New York, so rap music was just a major part of what I listened to, what I was influenced by.”

She lists Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and TLC as major childhood influences.

“Hip-hop has always been an influence on me I just never really performed it at live performances,” she said. “I just want to make sure that I cover all of who I am as best as possible in my music, so that’s sort of what brought that on.”

Other than herself, there’s only one entity that dictates who or what Vanessa Ferguson will be: God. Ferguson’s faith is strong, and she’s learned in recent years to let God take the wheel rather than try to control things that she may not be able to.

She says that newfound penchant for letting things come as they may is how she ended up on The Voice. But of course, she’s still proactive when it comes to being the best that she can be. She recently began teaching vocal lessons for the first time, and wants to continue to gain new experiences while waiting on what comes next.

“For me, it’s partially about being open to what God is planning on putting in my path and that’s something that I had to learn … just being open and being able to listen,” she says. “Of course, utilizing all my resources and doing what I can for myself and tapping into every aspect of music, too. I’ve been thinking about what else can I do, what other branches are there on this musical tree? And so, a major part of that is just sitting and listening and allowing God to insert things into my space.”

Ferguson performs in Nina Simone’s childhood home. (Photo courtesy of Come Hear NC)

Part of that plan is to continue to pay tribute to Nina Simone, an opportunity that she refers to as “divine purpose.” In fact, her upcoming weekend performances are a return of sorts. The Jazz Room was one of the first places where she and Draughn performed their tribute to Simone.

She says she’s looking forward to visiting fans and musician friends in Charlotte, which she laughingly refers to as “the What’s Poppin’ city” in North Carolina. And most of all, she looks forward to returning to the Jazz Room, which is reminiscent of the venues she has spent the last 15 years gigging in around the globe.

“It’s a small theater, so it gives you that intimacy,” she said. “I’m used to that. I grew up playing in clubs and bars and things, so it’s always nice to get into a venue where it’s small and intimate and I can see people’s faces … It’s the sort of venue that I can let my hair down and let loose, be Nina, talk to the audience, go off schedule a little bit and have a little bit more freedom.”

Because just as with Nina Simone, Lord help the person who denies Vanessa Ferguson her freedom.

[Correction: An original version of this story stated that Ferguson recently started taking vocal lessons, when she actually started teaching them.]

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