Afrobella of the Week, Afrobella of a Lifetime: Nina Simone

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.

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Comments

  1. I LOOOVE Nina! She was an innovator. She was well traveled and never thought twice about speaking her mind. So many of our sistas are scared or apprehensive about traveling to parts unknown…Nina embraced that with abandon. What a wonderful example of a grand dame! Bravo Bella!

  2. Her performance of “I got my (Hair)” is my pick me up and go conquer the world song. Her performance of “I loves you Porgy” is the most chilling and emotive I’ve ever heard. She is a goddess, a genius and an icon that surpasses class, race or country. She’s on the soundtrack to “The Thomas Crown affair” with Pierce Brosnan. It’s one of my top ten movies and Nina’s “Sinnerman” is amazing. Have you heard it Afrobella?

  3. What an excellent choice! Nina changed my life the day I worked on a graduate students show that was set to Nina’s music. I immediately went home and read about her and downloaded “Feeling Good” and “Sinnerman.” But nothing sounds like “If You Knew”.
    Mary might secretly be the best choice for playing Nina. She could easily physically transform into her. When Mary sings, it resonates in your core the same way Nina’s voice does. Regardless, she will have to dig deep, because that’s awesome role, not to be taken lightly.

  4. As a 22 year female, I always try to find examples of women that I think define womanhood in my everyday life and in pop culture. Nina Simone is it as far as pop culture goes. She was elegant, gifted, beautiful but manic, restless, and constantly searching. She’s a prime example of a fearless yet vulnerable soul. She represents all the possible facets a black woman can be. At my age, I’m still searching for that indefinable sense of self. I kind of like the fact that a woman like Nina Simone never stopped searching even though to me she’s the shit. That’s a little deep but her music puts me in that mood.
    BTW I’m surprised you didn’t mention Black is the Color of My true love’s Hair or Be My husband. Those are my songs.

  5. Excellent video choices. Nina was so much more than a singer. I also miss Celia Cruz, another giant.

  6. Another excellent piece. The BBC interview I remember vividly. She was at her wickedest best and very provocative. Her music lives on.

  7. She was a very deep person. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  8. Nina’s “Four Women” and Jill Scott’s “The Thickness” (http://afrobella.com/?p=85) are two of the most brilliant songs ever. Afrobella, you’re the best!!

  9. i know this is off topic but from what i hear Gerald Levert has just died from a heart attack. i cannot count how many of his songs have gotten me through rough times. i have had a crush on him for so many years, he opened my eyes that big boys could be sexy and tender. sorry for going off topic.

  10. I’ve always had respect for Nina Simone, the person, for all the reasons you mention, but I haven’t delved into the music the way I should or found out more about her life. I’ve have her autobiography and Sylvia Hampton’s biography on my to-read-list for years. Your post has prompted me to start downloading (starting with If You Knew) and to curl up with one of those books! Thank you!

  11. A million Thanks for your weekly Afrobella of the week. I have to say this is one was my favorite. I love Nina Simone her voice! her music! Just exquisitely amazing. You know how to pick the songs Afrobella, If you knew why moved me!

  12. LBellatrix says:

    My parents were HUGE Nina Simone fans. I just e-mailed them the YouTube page listing all those old clips. Thanks so much for this. I never really understand my parents’ love for her when I was a child but now, as an adult living in this blinged-out age, I really do.

  13. Nina Simone is my soul mate & her music got me through a painful period. I have been into her for years & it started when I saw the movie Point of No Return. I remember Bridget Fonda’s character demanding her Nina Simone Albums.

    I was fortunate enough to see Nina in her last US concert the year before she departed in Detroit & I was in the 3rd. There were some points were I cried because I could not believe that I was that close to her.

    My favorite songs are “Ne me quitte pas”, “The other Woman”, “Sinnerman”, “Four Women”, Black is the color”, “Funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter” Mississippi Goddam:and of course You Gifted and black”

    Great post & thanks for the videos!!!!

    Bygbaby Factoid: I have a tattoo that says “Young Gifted and Black”: My Homage to the High Priestess of Soul.

    Check out my latest Nina Simone post here http://tinyurl.com/y39jnp

    Peace

  14. Thank you for posting this! Nina Simone was one of the greatest, if not the Greatest Female Songstresses of all time. Her music had passion and substance and I am so glad you featured her here today so that other people who have never heard of her can be introduced to the Magnificent World of Nina!

  15. Love Nina!

  16. Oooh Nina SImone!!!!!Feeling Good goes through my bones….

  17. Oh yes..I heart Nina Simone! She was a woman who was light years ahead of her time. Her music and her voice was real and raw.

  18. stereotype1441 says:

    True.
    Nina Simone… she really had and shared a little something extra. Maybe thats because her feet never left the ground.
    Afrobella is amazing. I will tell everyone about it.
    #Go T&T..

  19. I love/loved Nina for her brassy no-holds-barred attitude and also her don’t box me in attitude towards the type of music that she would record. One thing that can never be said about her is that she was a “…..” singer, because she crosseed over into different genres, even before it was culturally “cool” to do so. One of the 3 biggest regrets that I have in my life is that I never got a chance to see her perform live. I am happy that you posted her as the Afrobella of the week!!!!

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  1. [...] my love for Nina Simone is no secret — but every so often I’m reminded of her genius. That just happened with this video, [...]

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