By Lyndsey Ellis
We’ve approached the 81st birthday of the late Nina
Simone. It’s an understatement to say that her presence isn’t deeply missed in music and black life.
The musical legend embodied excellence as an iconic vocalist, accomplished songwriter, and a masterful composer, and it would be downright shameful to go without honoring one of the 20th century’s pioneers of our culture’s arts movement. Let’s take a look at key elements that resonate when Ms. Simone comes to mind.
Once dubbed the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone has always been revered for her striking features that brilliantly clashed with society’s European ideals of beauty. The cocoa brown skin. The voluptuous figure. The thick, luscious eyebrows. The high cheekbones. The pronounced nose. The full, bold lips. And, when she smiled, the heavens fell.
Looking at Ms. Simone makes me appreciate being a woman of color all over again. To know that she successfully existed during a time when dark skin and anything that represented African roots were all but praised is a testament to the classic aesthetic of black females. Her take-it-or-leave-it boldness in style and dress forced America to reassess self-pride and what it meant to be attractive. Truth be told, there’d be no Lauryn Hills, or Serena Williamses, or Lupita N’yungos if Nina Simone hadn’t paved the way, or at least smoothed out some of the ripples in the road.
Few can deny that Simone’s music was as rare and unapologetic as her physical appearance. The fifteen-time Grammy Award nominee used a soulful blend of gospel, jazz, pop, folk, classical and R&B to get her point across and raised the standards of black self-expression. Her sound was the epitome of multi-dimensional perfection, reaching depths within one’s soul that exceed both time and place. The emotional severity of her lyrics and compositions, married with her rich contralto voice, gave us music that touch aspects of our lives that can’t be communicated through visuals or words.
Many of Simone’s songs and renditions—“ I Loves You Porgy”, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, “Sinner Man”, “My Baby Just Cares for Me”, “See-Line Woman”, “Feelin’ Good”, and “Lilac Wine”, among others—personify transparency and vulnerability, characteristics that helped the musician relate to her audience. Furthermore, she was a bonafide entertainer who incorporated call-and-response techniques, monologues, and long bouts of silence into her shows. The result was nothing short of hypnotic and pregnant with special meaning.
Simone was also an important figure of the Civil Rights Movement. As a child prodigy who witnessed the horrors of racial discrimination early in her life (her parents were even forced to sit in the back of their own child’s debut classical recital to make room for the white attendees), she advocated for equality among races. She promoted aggressive revolution rather than non-violent approaches and spoke at many demonstrations, including the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches. In addition, the musical heroine integrated her hatred of injustice in songs like “Four Women” and the cover of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit”. She was close friends with the esteemed poet and activist, Langston Hughes, who wrote the historically rich track, “Backlash Blues”, on one of her albums, and writer Lorraine Hansberry whose play—“To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”—she turned into a Civil Rights anthem. One of Simone’s goals over the course of her career was to cultivate social and political awareness that empowered her fan base, particularly at the height of the nation’s fight against the repression of African-Americans.
Perhaps what ultimately fueled Simone’s genius was a host of contradictions within her character. Like most legends, she was conflicted with pieces of herself spread across genres. There was no box to put her in, no category that could hold her and call her its own.
Everything about Simone was paradoxical. She was regal, but raw with a hot-blooded temperament. Her music could be described as synchronized, but chaotic, as she was known for her dramatic improvisations. And, her voice was supple, but unnerving, which was characteristic of her person on several levels. She was incomprehensible, and surely, that’s what made her great.
A close look at the flavorful life and times of Nina Simone could never fully articulate the musical giant’s ability to liberate through song and spirit. She’s an acquired taste, a Godsend to humanity, who deserves a place at the forefront of black history. To hear Nina is to hear love.
Lyndsey Ellis received her MFA in Writing from the California College of the Arts. She was a participant in the 7th annual Intergenerational Writer’s Lab at the Intersection for the Arts and a writer-in-residence at Vermont Studio Center. Ellis is a 2012 VONA (Voices of Our Nations) Alumni and partial fellowship recipient of the Summer Literary Seminars Program in Kenya. She’s led writing workshops at the African American Art & Culture Complex and the Mary Elizabeth Inn for Women in San Francisco, CA.