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My initial discovery of Nina Simone stemmed from an unlikely (and slightly embarrassing) place: the 1996 movie “Stealing Beauty,” which starred Liv Tyler as an American teenager who gets sent to live in a Tuscan villa with family friends following the suicide of her poet mom. I mean, we can all relate to that universal teen experience, am I right? (Also how did northern Italy come to represent a magical land of lady-self-discovery in the American consciousness? How come nobody goes to Canada to find their true gifts in life?)
At any rate, the film -- which at the time I loved and was slightly obsessed with, although I haven’t seen it in at least a decade -- featured Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” a song from her 1958 first album, but which was relatively unknown until Chanel used it in a commercial for Chanel No. 5 in 1987 (a commercial directed by Ridley Scott, to make the whole thing even weirder).
Simone did not receive any additional compensation for this, and to hear her tell it she doesn’t seem real impressed with the whole deal, but for better or worse this song has been a lot of people’s introduction to her work -- and for obsessive types like myself, an entrance to the deeper digging that allowed me to learn about the breadth of her output.
Nina Simone was originally born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina, where she grew up poor, the sixth daughter of a Methodist minister (her mother, in fact) alongside seven siblings and with an early interest in the work of J.S. Bach.
She ran up against racism in her efforts to be a serious musician pretty immediately. In one story, a young Simone was due to perform at a local church, and her parents were forced to move to the back to make room for white folks. As it goes, Simone refused to play until her parents were moved back to the front.
Later, she was denied a scholarship to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, she believed because of her race, although she did eventually spend a semester studying music at Juilliard in New York. (In a self-indulgent aside, my grandfather also attended Juilliard around the same time -- although his love was jazz and hers was classical, I have often wondered if they met.)
However, it was years later, in 1964, that Simone began to speak publicly about racial oppression, and to become a part of the civil rights movement, starting with the magnificent “Mississippi Goddam,” a song of frustration and rage over the deaths of Medgar Evers and the four little girls who were killed in a church bombing in Alabama.
In the above video, Simone plays "Mississippi Goddam" -- described by her in a different recording as “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet” -- for an audience of overwhelmingly white folks in the Netherlands. (For much of her career, a good portion of Simone’s popular success was happening in Europe.)
I’ve spent a lot of years trying to pinpoint what it is that makes Simone such a powerful performer to me, why she can move me to tears in the span of just a couple of verses. Simone, unlike a lot of people who have written and sung about injustice, does not simply convey a story -- she’s not performing folk songs about sad people in bad situations with a calculated distance.
Instead, Simone speaks directly to those who would oppress her, and straight up indicts her white audience -- “Mississippi Goddam” is just one compelling example. She doesn’t give us a sad tale to think deep and sympathetic thoughts about -- Simone is giving instruction: “Don’t tell me, I’ll tell you.”
Another example of Simone’s aggressive approach to talking about social injustice is her version of “Pirate Jenny,” a song from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. While in its original context, “Pirate Jenny” was not explicitly political, in Simone’s hands it becomes a vivid and menacing allegory of revolt against white supremacy, and one that was so exhausting for her to deliver that she played it live very rarely, needing time to recover afterward.
That may sound ridiculous on the surface, but if you listen to it, I think it sounds just that intense.
Simone wasn’t always so serious, though. The first time I heard “Go Limp,” a clever and funny story of a young woman who joins the civil rights movement, it was because my boss at the time dragged me into his office, shut the door, and made me sit down to listen to it (we shared a lot of music so this wasn’t totally weird). I was instantly charmed.
In this live version (from the same Netherlands performance as above), Simone even gets her audience of white Dutch folks to sing along -- also the interaction with her bassist is hilarious. Actually this video is great for a million reasons and everyone should watch it.
Simone also co-wrote the pointed “Backlash Blues” with her friend, Langston Hughes.
Yesterday would have been Simone’s 80th birthday. She died in France -- where she had lived for the past decade -- in 2003 after a long battle with breast cancer. A biopic of her life is currently in production, and is already rife with controversy over the decision to cast Zoe Saldana as Simone (if you watched ANY of the videos above, you’ll probably have a sense of why it’s actually pretty offensive to cast Saldana and put her in dark makeup and a prosthetic nose to play the rule, but here’s an excellent personal take on the subject).
While I’ll be glad if the biopic brings more people to Nina Simone’s work, and more attention to the outrageous intensity of her genius, it’ll never do her justice no matter who they cast. And I hope anyone who sees the film without a background in Simone’s life also takes time to see the real-life woman practicing her incredible gifts, as in the videos above, which honestly I could have gone on compiling forever (I didn’t even get to her tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. following his assassination in 1968, which makes me cry every. time. I hear it.).
Simone has a lifetime position amongst my top three musical artists, for her music yes, but also for her choice to be political, for her ability to command an audience, and for her enormous talent, and for doing all of this in popular venues, without compromise, even at the risk of making people uncomfortable. I find a lot to admire and aspire to in all of that.