Her Legacy Evolves
By Doris Schmidt
Although she died in 2003, the legendary soul/jazz singer Nina Simone is still very much with us. Of course, Simone lives on through her music. Her discography has grown over time, keeping tempo with her legend; the 40-plus albums recorded during her lifetime have been remixed, remastered, reimagined and repurposed as tributes, compilations, themed works and on movie soundtracks. Fans looking for their Simone fix on iTunes can choose among more than 400 Simone singles, more than 100 albums with her name in the credits, and almost 200 songs by other artists sampling her work.
Simone also lives on through her personal story – a life of struggle highlighted by passionate civil rights activism. That story was most recently told in the original documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which premiered June 26 on Netflix and in theaters. Directed by Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus, the film uses archival interviews with Simone and her friends and family (including daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, who served as executive producer), as well as excerpts from Simone's diary, all interwoven with footage from Simone's highly personal performances. The result: an insightful, multifaceted examination of a complex, multifaceted performer. What Happened, Miss Simone? answers its own question in two ways. It shows what happened as the singer's rage, disappointment, financial problems and mental-health issues brought her once-celebrated career to a close. But more importantly, it also shows what happened when Simone, an early commercial success, was awakened by the civil rights movement to a more strongly felt purpose: “I could sing to help my people and that became the mainstay of my life." Consequently, Simone's struggle for social justice became a mainstay of this documentary. As director Garbus said, “We were in our edit room when the events of Ferguson were unfolding. It reminds you that the struggle is ongoing and that her music and her words are as necessary and as relevant as they were then... Nina's is a voice that is very needed today."
That voice, and indeed Nina Simone's true life story, are reported to be among the elements missing from another biopic, Nina, slated for release later this year – and that's just the beginning of the controversy. Billed as “a rare and poignant love story about a tormented genius," the unauthorized biopic focuses on the supposed (by the writer, Cynthia Mort) romantic relationship between Simone and her openly gay assistant, leading Simone's daughter to characterize it as “based in a series of lies." The most controversial aspect of “Nina," however, has been the casting of light-skinned Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana in the title role – complete with skin-darkening makeup and a prosthetic nose. “I didn't think I was right for the part," Saldana said, and many (including Simone's daughter) agreed, with over 11,000 signing a Change.org petition to boycott the film. “This is not a slight against Saldana," Mark Lamont Hill wrote in Ebony magazine. “This is about defending the character of Simone's story and the integrity of her memory."
Yet Simone's real legacy does not rest in her life's work – it surges forward in a new generation of politically engaged musicians. “Nina Simone said it's an artist's duty to reflect the times in which we live," singer John Legend said in his Oscar acceptance speech earlier this year. Simone certainly fulfilled that duty, with songs like “Mississippi Goddam" sounding off against racism. But the extraordinary aspect of Simone's legacy – making it a true living legacy, rather than part of a revered past – is that she, in connection with current artists, has gone on to reflect the times in which we now live. She has become a prominent voice for what some are calling the new civil rights movement.
This new movement, powered by millennials and sparked by the deaths of young black men including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, has claimed Simone as one of its own right from the start. “It is driven far more by social media and hashtags than marches and open-air rallies," NPR blogger Gene Demby noted. And so the new civil rights activists channeled the rage of Simone's “Mississippi Goddam" into their own, peppering their protest tweets with hashtags such as #FergusonGoddamn and #MissouriGoddam. When a black man named Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore, #BaltimoreGoddamn became not only a hashtag, but also a song. Adapting Simone's iconic lyrics, Navasha Daya sang, “Baltimore is more than ‘The Wire'/ But the lack of equality makes me wanna holler/ Mothers losing their children to violence/ Fear from snitching has everyone silent."
Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal spoke the truth when he said that “the interest in Simone's music by a generation of artists, largely born after her recording of ‘Mississippi Goddam,' is just further evidence of the potency of her spirit"; but this new generation has taken it to the next level, harnessing her power to propel their own messages.
Case in point: hip-hop artist Talib Kweli's 21st-century version of Simone's “Four Women," which continues Simone's reflections on racism while also expanding and contemporizing the commentary. Simone's original piece, released in 1966, focuses on four archetypal females whose essential natures are signaled by their skin tones: black-skinned Aunt Sarah, strong and resilient; yellow-skinned Saffronia, biracial and conflicted; tan-skinned Sweet Thing, adaptable and opportunistic; and the ironically named Peaches, brown-skinned and bitter.
Kweli's updated version, tellingly titled “For Women," begins by name-checking Simone and reminding listeners that “coming into the new millennium, we can't forget our elders." The importance of history – of people's need to remember the past as they struggle through the present and fight toward the future – is a key theme in this piece, as Kweli fills in Simone's female archetypes with details that expand the conversation:
- Ancient Aunt Sarah “lived from nigger to colored to negro to black to afro then african-american and right back to nigger"
- Biracial Saffronia is a traveler without a passport on “that American Dream mission paid tuition/ For the receipt to find out her history was missing"
- Sweet Thing's story includes the realities of young parenthood, crack, AIDS, and prostitution
- Peaches “swears the next baby she has will breathe a free breath/ And get milk from a free breast/ And love being alive," while she herself looks to the future with the “destiny of a casualty," insisting “I live through my babies and I change my reality."
While “Four Women" has been reinterpreted by other artists as well (including Joy Denalane's version featuring four women of different cultures), it is not the work that has drawn Simone most closely to later generations.
That honor seems to belong to “Young, Gifted and Black," inspired by playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) and intended to “make black children all over the world feel good about themselves forever."
That 1969 song has, by many accounts, made good on its lofty promise. “Nina Simone was a messenger to our heart and conscience," singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello told the Los Angeles Times. Ndegeocello included the song on her 2012 album Pour Une Ame Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, explaining, “There is no telling how many lives she touched with the simple affirmation of the beauty of being ‘Young, Gifted and Black.' I know she touched mine."
Other artists have approached the song with a less gentle touch. Rapper Jay-Z's updated version, in particular, fast-forwards from Simone's “lovely precious dream" of the civil rights era to the gritty reality of the present day in stark contrasts of black against white. While Simone sang,“There's a world waiting for you," Jay-Z described that world: “All the screams from the ghetto/ Or the teens ducking metal here/ So they steam like a kettle here." Simone's “joy of today" has soured in Jay-Z's time, leaving him to conclude, “Somebody tell God that we got a couple of questions here/ my little cousin never got to see his seventh year/ And I'm so used to pain that I ain't even shed a tear."
How would Nina Simone feel about the new incarnations of her songs? Of course no one can say, but her own words hint that she might approve of the spirit rather than the style. She'd likely have appreciated Jay-Z's righteous rage - she did, after all, favor revolution over passive resistance, going so far as to introduce herself to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by telling him, “I'm not non-violent!" Yet the famously genre-defying Simone was not a fan of rap. In an interview with Detail magazine, she explained, “I don't like rap music at all. I don't think it's music... even though they are protesting against what we have all protested against - racism in this country - [rappers] have ruined music as far as I'm concerned."
Some fans and critics thought rapper Kanye West came perilously close to doing this on one particular song, “Blood on the Leaves," which sampled Simone's version of the iconic “Strange Fruit." The controversy hinged on how listeners viewed West's intent in using the sample, which injected the haunting memory of Southern lynchings into a rap with lyrics about fame, money and drugs: “She Instagram herself like #BadBitchAlert/ He Instagram his watch like #MadRichAlert... Now you sittin' courtside, wifey on the other side/ Gotta keep ‘em separated, I call that apartheid." For some, the contrast trivialized Simone's potent message. “West's ‘Blood on the Leaves' doesn't tackle racism or oppression in the 21st century," one listener complained, with West's use of “Strange Fruit" simply managing to turn a “cry against social injustice into a club record." For others, it signaled a deeper message in West's work. “Kanye knows the history behind it [Simone's version] and it seems to me that if he's juxtaposing that with the hip-hop bling world, which he has such a strange relationship with, it has to be commentary," one professor of Afro-American studies said. “It's not about the layers, it's about understanding that this is his call, formed in response to the history."
The take-away seems clear: Nina Simone, in collaboration with artists of today, remains a powerful voice in the protests of today – and her collaborators are on notice to use that power wisely. Simone's contribution goes beyond the quality of her music to include the quality of her enduring spirit, according to singer-songwriter Joi Gilliam. “I don't think you can be an artist and come across some of Nina Simone's work and not be challenged to be more honest and more vulnerable and more passionate," she said. “I'm challenged every time I listen."
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