What Happened, Miss Simone?

[It is a great joy writing about a figure of great importance, because you get to dig in and understand the true reasons behind their celebrated greatness. In the case of writing about Nina Simone for the new film about her life, I was familiar with her music and aware of her prominence, but between the film and the research for this article, I felt like I was being properly introduced to her for the first time. Hopefully readers felt the same. I’m also quite pleased with the playlist I made to go with it.]

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Nina Simone is finally getting her due.

Half a century after her initial peak, the singer, songwriter, musician and activist is being posthumously immortalized in a big way.

Following her 2003 death, there’s been a steady flow of renewed interest in the singular 20th century artist, including two biographies, a book of poetry, multiple plays and the innumerable samples of her work in hip-hop and beyond. In the last few years, Simone has been the subject or source of inspiration for several tribute albums and three films, the newest of which is the Netflix documentary on her life, What Happened, Miss Simone?, out June 25.

As an artist her music has continually influenced a wide variety of styles over the last 50 years.  As a revolutionary public figure she challenged the socio-political establishment on race, gender and sexual orientation. Especially as an outspoken voice in the ongoing fight for civil rights and social equality, Nina Simone has become nearly as relevant today as she was in her own time.

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933, Simone was raised in the segregated town of Tryon, North Carolina.

Leaning the piano at age three, by eight Simone was on track to become a serious musician. Intent to become a premier classical pianist, she applied to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. Despite a strong audition she was denied entrance, a rejection she was later told was based on her race. Though she moved to New York to study at Juilliard for a year, that rejection sparked a major shift in the direction of Simone’s career. She reinvented herself under the name Nina Simone, taking her music into the realms of jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel and pop.

Her first and only Top 40 hit came in 1959 with “I Loves You, Porgy” off her debut album. In New York, Simone befriended prominent African American activists and thought leaders including James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry and Malcolm X. Simone’s music became increasingly socially and politically charged, such as with the brutally critical ”Mississippi Goddam” and the helplessly pleading “I Wish Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.”

In the trailer for What Happened, Miss Simone?, she states, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.”

Nina Simone, 1965 (Photo: Ron Kroon / Anefo / Dutch National Archives)

Nina Simone, 1965 (Photo: Ron Kroon / Anefo / Dutch National Archives)

The film’s greatest revelation is in showing the extent of Nina Simone’s troubled personal life.

Though she was bisexual, she spent the Sixties in a physically and sexually abusive marriage with her husband and manager. Known for her short temper and unpredictable mood swings, she would later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Following the dissolution of her marriage associated financial issues, Simone eventually chose to emigrate to Liberia at the suggestion of her friend, South African singer Miriam Makeba. She later relocated to Switzerland before settling in France in 1992, where she lived the rest of her life.

Though the film gives great insight into Nina Simone the woman, her true legacy lies in Nina Simone the artist.

She is easily identified by her expressive contralto voice, her provocative songwriting and delivery, and her stylistic fusion of pop, gospel and jazz with classical foundations.

Her well-known repertoire of songs – comprised of both originals and versions she made her own – are often called “Simone Standards.” Though she didn’t write, “Feeling Good,” “See-Line Woman,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Mr. Bojangles” or countless others, her renditions of them became some of the most powerful and definitive.

Transcending gender, race and genre, her profound influence has been perennially cited by artists through the decades.

This list of admirers ranges from John Lennon, Van Morrison and Nick Cave to Mos Def, John Legend and Alicia Keys to Jeff Buckley, Antony & The Johnsons and Hozier. Besides Nina Revisited, the new star-studded tribute album out July 10, Simone has recently been honored by two full-albums covering her songbook: Pour Une Âme Souveraine  (2012) by neo-soul artist Meshell Ndegeocello, and Nina (2013) by experimental post-punk band Xiu Xiu. Her primary influence has also be cited by Rising punk-gospel outfit Algiers.

Of course her modern-day relevancy is most pungent in hip-hop, a genre, ironically, she once said had “ruined music, as far as I’m concerned.” The list of artists who have sampled Nina Simone is seemingly endless, but it includes Lil Wayne, 50 cent, The Roots, Dr. Dre, Common, Talib Kweli, Timbaland, Brother Ali, Prodigy and JAY Z. Two of her most prominent disciples may be that of Kanye West and Lauryn Hill, who have repeatedly sampled, covered and referenced Simone over the years.

We pay our deep respects to the massive figure that was Miss Nina Simone. May her ground-shaking legacy live on in perpetuity.



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