When I am at my lowest emotional ebb, no music speaks to me more than that of Nina Simone.
There’s just something about her voice, the songs she chose to sing. Nina can bring me to tears. Then she can bring me back up out of the deepest funk. She can inspire you, break your heart, and fill you with righteous anger all at the same time.
It’s too easy to sum it up by saying something cliche, like “there will never be another Nina Simone,” or “Nina Simone was one of a kind;” although those statements are certainly true. She was called the high priestess of soul for a reason; that wasn’t a meaningless, self-appointed, easily disproven title like “King of Pop.”
Nina’s gift was her passion. I can only wish that there will be another singer like her someday, who can reach inside her listeners to make them feel as she did. She’s more than Afrobella of the week, she’s in the Afrobella Hall of Fame.
Her voice was her gift, and she used it to the fullest. At the peak of her vocal purity she sang the heck out of standards like “Summertime” and “I Loves You Porgy”. That song became her biggest hit; in 1959 it hit number 18 on the charts.
In her early years, she recorded many exotic songs in foreign languages, like “Zungo” and this amazing, percussive version of “Erets Zavat Chalav” that got me up and dancing this morning.
Many of her songs became hugely famous in films and advertising after she died in 2003, “Feeling Good” was used to memorable effect in this Six Feet Under ad, and “My Baby Just Cares for Me” became a huge hit in Britain after it was used in a Chanel No. 5 commercial in the Eighties. Nina got screwed out of a lot of her royalties, and she was rightfully bitter about recording companies in her latter years. She didn’t suffer fools gladly and she earned a reputation as a bitch. But she stayed real right up until the end. That’s what I love about her. She was always, unapologetically Nina.
So few of our contemporary Africa-American artists are fiercely political. I mean, I was proud when Kanye made his infamous outburst after Hurricane Katrina, and celebs like Eve and Mary J. Blige are doing great work with AIDS charities. But I’m talking fighting mad, like Spike Lee mad, Danny Glover mad, Harry Belafonte mad. Nina felt so passionate about civil rights that in this amazing video about her life that I implore all of you to watch, she said “if I had my way, I’d have been a killer.” I wonder how she would feel about today’s crop of “Young, Gifted, and Black” performers, who seem to think the world of bling and fancy cars.
Nina Simone interviews are always a delight to watch for her unvarnished truth. She held court while eating, or in a fantastic memoriam I once saw on BBC, with a champagne glass in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other.
She was unabashedly Afrocentric, and as she became a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement, she reflected those raw, angry emotions in melodic, irresistable songs like “Mississippi Goddamn,” which was inspired by the untimely and cruel death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, “Old Jim Crow,” and “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” a haunting song recorded in response to Martin Luther King’s assassination.
“To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” became an anthem of hope for a dispossessed and restless people, and it still speaks volumes today.
This jumpy, fleeting clip of “I Put A Spell On You” reveals the scope of her talent – her voice comes out strong and true without the need for hair-flinging histronics or facial contortions.Which is what makes Mary J. Blige an interesting choice to play Nina in the upcoming biopic. I love Mary, but I’ve never seen her act – unless you could her on-stage emotions and dramatic music videos. She’s got the voice for the part, no doubt. But Mary’s gonna have to reach deep inside herself and find restraint in her performances to really make a believable Nina.
I had to think long and hard about what video clip to feature here. Sadly, many of the videos on You Tube are goofy animations or photo montages set to Nina’s soaring voice.
It came down to a toss-up between this 1961 version of “Sunday in Savannah,” (the first Nina Simone song I ever heard, when I was around 13 years old I would listen to this song over and over again), this ten minute meditation of “Four Women,” a song I think all black women should hear at least once. Nina paints a portrait of four black women, ranging in shade and appearance. Watch her hands tickle the ivories. She’s absolutely hypnotic.
Finally I settled on her haunting version of “If You Knew.” Why? Because she made me cry when I watched it, at one of those moments when I needed a good cry.
Nina, if you knew how we missed you. Even now after you’re gone, you’re an inspiration to Afrobellas everywhere.