Mary J. Blige has always felt a deep connection to the music of Nina Simone. In 2015, she recorded a jazzy, soulful cover of Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” for the compilation Nina Revisited and she was previously attached to portray the vocalist in a biopic, though the role eventually went to Zoe Saldana.
Before the casting switch, though, Blige explained why Simone was so important to her in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Playing a character like Nina Simone is playing myself,” she said, “because Nina Simone was a manic depressive, drug addict, alcoholic, cursing wild maniac that I was, but very talented, so people would get that.”
She underscored her bond with Simone during an emotional speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cleveland, where she did the honors of welcoming the late singer into the institution on Saturday. “I am such a huge Nina Simone fan,” Blige told Rolling Stone earlier this year, “and am beyond thrilled and honored to be a part of her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.” Here’s what she had to say about Simone at the gala.
It’s an honor to have been invited here tonight to induct Nina Simone into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Please bear with me, this is a very long speech, but I’m here for the queen tonight. I’m going to take my time.
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Nina Simone could sing anything. She was classically trained, and they called her the High Priestess of Soul. She sang jazz, blues, spirituals, folk songs, show tunes, children’s songs, songs by Bob Dylan, the Bee Gees and George Harrison. But everything she sang, she made her own.
When I heard “Ne Me Quitte Pas” for the first time, the song she sang in French, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. But I felt everything she was saying, all this deep emotion and pain of her longing for someone seems to be what she was singing about. Her song “Mississippi Goddamn” – which was her first civil rights song in response to Medgar Evers’ death in Mississippi and the four little black girls in the Alabama church bombing – gives us chills with its anointing and frustration and anger [at] the racism that was going on in the world.
Nina was bold, strong, feisty and fearless, and so vulnerable and transparent all at the same time. Her voice was so distinctive and warm and powerful; I never heard anything like it. She knew who she was and she was confident in what she did and why she did it. But it was often the lack of confidence in herself that people could relate to. Nina sang for all her pain, her joy, her confusion, her happiness, her sickness, her fight. She fought through all the stereotypes. She fought for her identity. She fought for her life.
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, the sixth of eight children in a poor family. She was a piano prodigy playing the piano at three years old. She played her first classical recital when she was 10 years old, but during this performance, her parents, who had taken seats in the front row, were forced to move to the back of the hall to make way for white patron. Eunice refused to play until her parents were put back in their seats. It was a moment that would haunt her forever.
Later, after years of training, her ambition of becoming the world’s first prominent black female classical pianist was crushed when her application to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was denied. She spent the rest of her life convinced that she was rejected because of racial oppression. Eunice went and took on a new name: Nina Simone. Her very first album, 1958’s Little Girl Blue, contained her defining, biggest hit ever, her version of “I Loves You Porgy” from Porgy and Bess.
Andrew Young, who was the mayor of Atlanta and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a congressman, said that, during his days as a civil rights organizer, Simone’s music was the soundtrack of the movement. “Every home I went to had Nina Simone – I mean everyone,” he said. “For all the people in the civil rights moment, it was an identity.” Her songs about injustice, struggle, and black life resonate to this day. They’re just as relevant to Ferguson or Baltimore or Mississippi as they were to the civil rights era. And, of course, hip-hop took notice, with artists such as Ms. Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, Common, Jay-Z and myself, amongst others, sampling her extensively, and she has influenced countless singers, including many of them that are here on this stage today.
I know, I know, I know that Nina and I have a lot in common. Through our pain and our turmoil, we sing and we heal and we help people heal and we help people get through it. Just like Nina, I can do a record with whoever I want – I can do a record with Elton John or with Bono or with Jay-Z or with Method Man and no one will ask, “Why is she doing that?” That’s because I know exactly what I want and who I am and why I’m doing what I’m doing. And that’s what Nina did, and that is why she is so important and she means so much to me. And so, it is with great pride and great pleasure that I now welcome Nina Simone into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.