Diasporian News of Wednesday, 7 April 2004

Ghanaians get the royal treatment

Legendary singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone, who died last year, lived and sang all over the world.

But her connection to New Jersey and Ghana may help preserve her legacy of educating children of African and African-American descent.

A royal delegation from Ghana spent yesterday traveling through Essex County and promoting the Nina Simone Foundation, a nonprofit organization created by her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly.

The foundation has been given 50 acres in Jukwa near Cape Coast to create the Nina Simone Cultural Village, said Kelly.

The village will have a hospital and a school and also will be a showcase for "artisans and craftsmen," Kelly said. "We want to have African-Americans from all over the world to visit."

Kelly said her mother, who died at age 70 in her home in France, always adored Ghana. "She lived in many houses, but she only had one house built. She built it in Ghana," said Kelly, who splits her time between Ghana and a home in the Poconos.

Simone, famous for the anthem "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" and "I Loves You Porgy" from the opera, also experienced career- changing events in New Jersey.

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina, she established her stage name while working as a singer-pianist in the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City. During her later years in life, she would visit Newark and stay with her friends, poets and activists Amiri and Amina Baraka.

In 1998, she returned to the stage after a five-year hiatus by playing to a sellout crowd at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

The exchange between Essex County and Ghana is in the "elemental stages," but there could be a trade of cultures and goods in the future, said Kelly, who has established her own singing career by starring in "Aida" on Broadway and with the Grammy-nominated jazz fusion band Liquid Soul.

The delegation, which included members of the Parliament in Ghana and chiefs, began yesterday at the county Hall of Records in Newark and later visited city halls in East Orange, Orange and Irvington.

An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Ghanaians live in those towns and Newark, the remnants of a migration of students to Rutgers University, Essex County College and other area schools in the 1960s. A. Zachary Yamba, president of Essex County College, was born in Navrongo in northern Ghana.

"In this diverse economy, it is incumbent upon municipalities to look beyond their borders and foster those key global relationships that will yield important dividends for the community," Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith said.

"Today, citizens are playing a vital role in the social and economic development of our county," said Balozi Harvey, executive director of the Economic Development Corp.

He called yesterday's visit "a launching pad" for new initiatives by his agency for trade and tourism promotion.

County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo gave all members of the delegation proclamations from the county and pins emblazoned with the county's motto, "Putting Essex County First."

Isaac Aggrey, Ghana's ambassador to the United States, said the events yesterday established a future relationship with the county. "It is indeed a high honor for us to be so warmly received," he said. "We came here with expectations and I think, by this gesture, our expectations have been met."

Essex County was not the only stop for the delegation, which arrived in New York on April 1 and will spend tomorrow in the Bronx. They will visit Lincoln and Cheney State universities in Pennsylvania and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem before leaving for Ghana on Sunday.

Nikita Stewart covers Essex County government. She can be reached at nstewart@starledger.com or (973) 392-1766.

NIKITA STEWART -Star-Ledger Staff