Black Music Month Spotlight: Nina Simone

I never really listened to Nina Simone until a few years ago. I was familiar with her name, knew her voice a bit especially from samples in hip hop (Common, Lil’ Wayne, Kanye West & Jay-Z). Then I listened to Nina Simone, and I have yet to slow down.

Nina is a complicated figure in music history, in part because she will not fit into a traditional genre box, and she preferred it that way. Born Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933 in segregated Tryon, North Carolina, she was a classical piano prodigy from the age of 3. Her first act of civil rights activism was during her first recital at the age of 12. Her parents were moved from the front row to the back to accommodate white attendees, and she refused to play until her parents were given back front row seats.

From there, she auditioned and was rejected from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music (supposedly due to her race), and began playing piano and singing in Atlantic City, which is where she was reborn under the moniker Nina Simone. The stage name was an effort to keep her secular performances from her mother, a Methodist minister. Her repertoire at this time was classical, jazz, and blues.

She found success with a rendition of “I Loves You Porgy” (her only Billboard Top 20 record), and began her ascent to prominence. Her notability grew when her music began to politically reflect the times, first in 1963’s “Mississippi Goddam”. As she progressed further into politically charged lyrics and tones, her music also began to incorporate more soul & R&B, while effortlessly juggling her other genres, which by this point also included showtunes.

After the Civil Rights era began to crumble, so did Nina. She effectively vacated the United States and spent time living here and there before finally settling in France. after leaving the US in the 1970’s, she recorded and released just 4 more studios albums (and a handful of live albums). Her final album, A Single Woman, was released in 1993.

What draws me to Nina, is not only her sporadic and diverse catalog, but her unmistakable voice. I love how she described her singing voice: “Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream”. Her soulfulness mixed with occasional agitation is spellbinding, and her cadence is nothing short of incredible. And her skill as a pianist is genius. This is also the woman who incorporates a classical solo in the style of Bach in the middle of a cover of “Love Me Or Leave Me”, effortlessly. It works so well, it is always on any Nina playlist I create.

Her diverse representation of black women on “Four Women” is a chilling masterpiece, as is her demanding rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell on You”. Lyrically, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, as she sings about breaking the chains holding her and wanting to giving all she can give, could be read as a plea. Somehow, she delivers it with such optimism and motivation and hope, it is a true awakening. Even when she sings in another language, such as French song “Ne Me Quitte Pas”, her soulfulness properly conveys the song’s meaning, ‘please don’t leave me’.

My favorite Nina song will forever be “Sinnerman”. It’s a 10-minute spiritual awakening that shakes me to my core, every single time I listen. From the opening notes of the piano, through each change and progression of the song, I quiver.

Though Nina remained somewhat unsung over the years, thankfully her influence continues. Last year Netflix released a family-approved documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? to examine and explain Nina’s complicated life (mostly through clips of Nina herself speaking). The film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award. Nina has been gone for over a decade but her music and her genius will continue to inspire generations to come. I guarantee it.

 

Explore Nina further with this playlist:

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