How Nina Simone Captivated a New Generation
Nina Simone died 15 years ago this month, but judging on influence alone, it’s begun to seem like she never left. Consider Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.”: The Grammy-nominated 4:44 track incorporates a sample of Simone’s “Four Women,” and the accompanying video even depicts a cartoon version of the late singer. The 2017 song joins the list of other recent hip-hop tracks that have sampled Simone including Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves,” Lil Wayne’s “Understood,” and West and Jay-Z’s “New Day.” As producer No ID told Rolling Stone last year about Jay-Z’s use of Simone samples on 4:44, “That’s the score to his life. That’s the core reason for using them.”
Two years ago, director Liz Garbus’ unflinching Simone documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, was nominated for an Oscar; Lana Del Rey asked for a special screening, and Garbus heard that Beyoncé loved the film. (It was followed by a less–well-received dramatized biopic, Nina, starring Zoe Saldana.) “I knew how much people in the music world loved Nina,” says Garbus. “She wasn’t a household name like Aretha, who made more commercial choices like going on night-time talk shows. Nina chose not to do that. So there’s a lot of reverence for Nina and a sense that she didn’t get her due during her lifetime.”
The capper of the current Simone moment will be her induction this month into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – although, if all it took was insouciance and a rebel streak to qualify, Simone could have been welcomed there years ago. A woman of deep complexity and uncompromising authority, Simone, who died in 2003 at age 70 from breast cancer, rewrote the rules for what it meant to be a woman in so-called show business. “Four Woman,” her 1966 song about a quartet of African-American women (a prostitute, an activist, an interracial woman and a daughter of slaves), was banned in Philadelphia and other cities, just like “Louie Louie” or similarly censored songs of the time. At New York’s Village Gate in 1959, she kept her audience waiting an hour, all while she holed up in her dressing room complaining about her fee and the size of the crowd. When she finally did appear, she interjected shouts of “I must get my money!” and “I will get my money!” into the songs. During a performance at a record-industry conference in 1977, she berated the executives in attendance – “Most of you people out there are crooks” – and was booed off the stage. “I am no more evil or temperamental than anybody else, the only thing is I’m more obvious,” she told Newsweek in 1963. “I do it in public.”
“Nina Simone was more rock & roll than a bunch of people who have already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” says modern folk artist Rhiannon Giddens, who discovered Simone via YouTube clips and later covered “Tomorrow Is My Turn” on her album of the same name. “If you want to say rock & roll is anger music, then Nina Simone is rock & roll.”
The rediscovery of Simone has been gradually building since Tracy Chapman and the late Jeff Buckley covered her songs either before or just after her death. Since then, songs associated with Simone have been covered by Muse, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Usher, Feist and John Legend, and remixed by the likes of Avicii and Postal Service. That staggeringly diverse list reflects the variety of Simone’s work. Starting with her first album in 1958 (recordings for which were recently reissued as Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Sessions, followed by the double-disc The Colpix Singles), Simone left behind one of the most remarkably eclectic bodies of work in pop history – a journey into the evolution of popular music itself.
Either in concert or on record, you never quite knew what you were getting with Simone. Her piano playing was steeped in the classical music she studied as a child in North Carolina, where she showed such an early gift that a local music teacher raised funds to pay for the child’s further education. Jazz – like “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” with its swinging, ready-for-a-party piano – reflected her days playing clubs in Atlantic City, where drunken college boys became her first audience and she had to learn to sing, fast, in order to make a living. Then again, she could opt for folk songs from the years that followed—a bit of Dylan or perhaps “House of the Rising Sun,” where she would portray the destitute young girl drawn to a life of prostitution.
In keeping with the musical upheaval of the later Sixties, you could investigate a Simone album from that era and be confronted with the rhythmic churn of funk, congas thwacking around her and electric wah-wah guitars slithering by her side. (Check out “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter” from 1974’s It Is Finished.) You could encounter a celebratory and cathartic version of “Ain’t Got No/Got Life,” the Hair gem that would run through a litany of losses – no wine, no schooling – before she would blow all of it away with her shout of “But I got life!” There could be throaty renditions of pop hits, from George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” to, yes, Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl,” each one reconfigured to become her own rather than merely a faithful remake. Jumping around Spotify playlists has nothing on Simone’s discography; no wonder so many stylistically different musicians are drawn to it.
Yet what’s made Simone newly relevant is life in a Black Lives Matter world. It’s not uncommon for artists to be affected by, and reflect, their times, but rarely has that connection been as profound and striking as it was with Simone. When she was assembling historical footage for What Happened, Miss Simone?, Garbus was struck by clips of Sixties civil rights clashes. “It looked just like Ferguson,” she says. “We had started the project before Black Lives Matter had become widespread. And you could see that things haven’t evolved.” When Legend and Common accepted their Oscars in 2015 for “Glory,” from Selma, Legend gave Simone a shout-out.
Born Eunice Waymon, Simone experienced racism early, in North Carolina, when she wasn’t allowed to use a bathroom in the white-dominated part of town – the local five-and-dime had no restrooms for “coloreds,” as a sign said – and would have to wait until she arrived at the black business district downtown. After a year at Juilliard, where she studied to become a concert pianist, she applied to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and was rejected, for reasons she always felt were race-driven, and the seeds of her righteous anger at the system were planted.
To help pay her bills, Eunice, then 21, began performing in Atlantic City in 1954, taking the name Nina Simone as a tribute to actress Simone Signoret (according to some sources, that is; she would often say she had no idea where it came from). Before long, she’d developed a following and a reputation, and earned the first of many record contracts, and her unusual career began its first of many atypical steps with a rendition of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” the forlorn love song from Porgy and Bess, which became an unlikely pop hit, cracking the Top 20 in 1959.
In 1960, Simone appeared onstage at the Village Vanguard in a gray chiffon gown and a wig singing similar standards. But before long, she had penned a frisky piece of pop jazz called “Mississippi Goddam,” about the 1963 church bombing that killed four black children in Alabama; the death of Medgar Evers also factored into its creation. The song, about “a country full of lies,” is still relevant, as is “Today Is a Killer,” based on Last Poets member David Nelson’s text about the fears and paranoia in America in the Sixties. By the end of the decade, the wigs and gowns of her early career were gone, replaced by a blossoming Afro and Afrocentric caftans; her repertoire expanded to include her own social consciousness songs, like “Young, Gifted and Black” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” Her piano playing could be restrained and dignified. But her voice – lusty, emotive, simmering – was earthy, almost masculine, the sound of dusk descending. It would vault from the most intimate, ladylike whisper, as if no one else was around, into a stern, impassioned shout in which all the righteous indignation, sorrow and fury within her was uncorked for all to hear. She became a mirror of the changes in African-American life from the dawn of the Sixties to its end.
“People are drawn to her now because she was ahead of her time,” says Giddens (who, strangely, shares the same birthday with Simone). “She blazed a trail. She presented herself as a black woman and talked about issues related to black women, before Beyoncé. She got penalized for it in various ways, but as a woman of color I look at her and say, ‘I have no excuse for not doing exactly what I want to do.'”