Drifting from alto to tenor to baritone, Nina Simone spent a career giving a melodic voice to not only her pains and joys and schadenfreude and all the like, but to a generation of pain bearers.
For generations after, her tunes and vigilance against an oppressive system continues to inspire and not expire. In the hip hop genre, your favorite rappers credit her for their music, most notably Kanye West and Talib Kweli.
Even your favorite Martian put her track on the end of his best-selling album.
As far as R&B artists, her tentacles are everywhere. If Richard Pryor influenced every comedian after him (“whether they know it or not,” said Dave Chappelle), then Simone has the same effect on contemporary rhythm and blues artists. But what makes her music endure?
Was it the longevity? It isn’t just that Tupacian-like work ethic she demonstrated. In fact, Pac had a Simonian ethic. She’d practically been singing since birth, and despite facing hardships that would diminish the life, not to mention art, of many people, she kept going. Recording over 40 albums, a biography toward the end of her life evinced that Simone battled numerous mental illnesses throughout the years. There are “sane” people who do little more than go to work eight hours a day, five days a week. So was her beastly work ethic because of her mental capacity or despite it?
Was it the spectrum of her octaves? Simone had an androgynous voice that gave way to a fully human expression. A musician who understands his or her voice as an extension of the instrument is one thing; a musician who could fully capitalize from this knowledge is another. Listening to “Feeling Good” leaves an uninitiated ear thinking a Y-chromosome was on the track. But it was Simone, doing what she did best, taking advantage of her subjectivity and individuality to produce her own brand of sonic emotion.
Listening to her rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy” should restore order in the universe, but it doesn’t. It only leaves a feeling of awe about the limits of human vocal vibrations. Whatever note she rocked, a vibrato was present in a way that you felt something. Words were not merely alphabets she crooned, but a mask for the ripple waves behind them.
She put her own spin on diverse acts such as Duke Ellington, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, the Bee Gees, George Gershwin and many others. She wasn’t a jazz or folk artist. Nor a blues singer. Nor a gospel signifier. She had classical training, but her fusion of all forms of music into one left little to be desired. Simone knocked down the silos of genres and integrated them in a manner that was palatable.
Was it her full humanity on display? She was a Black woman from North Carolina in the 1930s during the depression. Getting her start in a church choir, she’s seen enough at an early enough age to know a voice needed to be lifted and sung. She was smart enough to know that whoever lifted that voice would be on a limb. Yet she had the huevos to do it.
And huevos is right. Her willingness to dip to the “masculine” sound to carry a song demonstrated not only an intransigence against normal order, but a olive branch to her male—especially Black male—counterparts. She used low visceral notes to evoke a sound that bridged a connection between both sexes. She never denied her womanhood, but she wasn’t myopic enough to limit herself to a mainstream interpretation of it either. She used her talent to define her own womanhood.
Her on-stage performances gave the gamut of emotions. From perfectly sanguine to choleric. From overwhelming joy to profound sadness to comical to uplifting.
She left the States in the late 60s due to increased disenchantment with racial inequality. Spending time in Barbados, Africa and settling in Europe (France), she called the U.S. a place where “it’s hopeless for the majority of Black people.”
She’s said to be a pioneer of talking during her performances while sitting at the piano. On the heels of the Medgar Evers assassination, she wrote “Mississippi Goddam” and placed herself as a voice for Black rights. Legend has it that during a performance at the Village Vanguard in New York City, she asked, before singing, if there were any Black people in the audience.
Two people stood up. Simone then remarked, “I’m singing only to you. I don’t care about the others.”
This is a Nina Simone love piece. Let me just get that out the way.