By Matthew Bieker
When Nina Simone penned her song “Four Women” in 1966, she was speaking to the experiences of Black women in the United States as told by four characters: Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches. Each one drew on a different stereotype or injustice with which Black and brown women were—and still are—forced to contend.
When jazz singer Lily Baran performed the song for local nonprofit For the Love of Jazz last November, she was speaking about the same oppression, only, instead of characters, she sang the names of real people: Sandra Bland, Aiyana Jones, Vanessa Guillén and Breonna Taylor.
“I thought about how Nina Simone, as an activist, was a very outspoken person in her time, and not well-liked in America at all during her time, and thought, ‘What would it be like if she was writing for women now?’” Baran said.
Baran is an activist for social justice causes and organizations, including Black Lives Matter and Justice for Miciah Lee—a Black teenager shot to death by Sparks Police officers last year. Larger racial justice movements, she said, don’t always address the violence directed at Black and trans women, so when she went to record last fall (right after the presidential election, when the victor was still uncertain) she decided to tell the stories of four women unjustly killed by law enforcement or, in Guillén’s case, while employed by the United States Armed Forces.
“Sandra Bland was the first, and that was really hard,” Baran said. “It took a lot out of me… She was also an activist. The lyric where I say, ‘At first they use a noose, now all they do is shoot’ is something that she made up in a protest and that she made a sign of.”
Baran grew up in the Lake Tahoe area and attended the Professional Performing Arts School in New York in 2005. With influence from her blues-player grandfather, she found jazz when she was 16 years old. She appeared on Broadway, shot commercials and recorded albums before returning to Reno, where she took over the Tahoe Players theater company founded by her grandmother.
Baran’s music and politics didn’t always share the same stage, but, as she pointed out, jazz has never been divorced from racial justice in America.
“It’s important to note that jazz, especially Black jazz musicians have always used it … also as protest music,” Baran said. “There’s always something that feels like activism when you’re doing certain songs. And it always feels a little bit against the grain…in certain settings to do that.”
Baran’s voice is lithe and exact—lilting in places, powerful and resonant in others. She recorded her For the Love of Jazz set at Tanglewood Productions with three local jazz musicians (Greg Lewis on drums, Angelo Monroy on piano and Nick Mills on guitar), creating a quartet she dubbed “Say Their Names.” Baran trusts her bandmates to know the historical context of both the song and jazz music in general—something she said needs to be better explored by the city’s larger jazz community.
“UNR is a predominantly white male jazz faculty, which is unique and problematic to me,” Baran said. “Although I deeply respect the people on the faculty, I do feel like there’s a lot to be said there about how jazz music is Black American music, and it is the thing that Black people gave America out of slavery. Every time white people capitalize on it, I believe they need to make a huge effort to acknowledge that.”
Baran said she doesn’t have plans to record more with Say Their Names just yet, but she hasn’t ruled it out for the future.
Right now, she is focused on her work as an attaché for Assembly member Shondra Summers-Armstrong, furthering legislation she prioritizes “as a Black person, as a mother, as a woman.” She also teaches musical theater, acting and voice as a private educator. (She left her job at a local middle school because of the Washoe County School District’s board policy 1310 prohibiting discussion of political issues in class, including those of racial and social movements, she said).
However, Baran said she will always feel the need to perform and is planning an upcoming recording at Laughing Planet Sessions on March 26. Aside from the broadcast of her Mass Liberation Radio show on KWNK Saturdays at noon, Baran is also featured on Say Their Names member Nick Mill’s upcoming album Death Anxiety, which is scheduled for release on Feb. 19.