By Michael Gonzales
Nina Simone (1933–2003) was no stranger to rhythmic revolution. A classically trained pianist known for her rough exterior, gruff voice, and musical genius, her vibrant material still sounds fresh. With songs like “Sinnerman” and “Feeling Good” used in various films and television shows including Point of No Return, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Six Feet Under, her haunting voice is constantly being rediscovered by new generations. And that’s what Generation Soul is all about.
Beginning her career in the 1950s performing in supper clubs and jazz spots, the Tyron, North Carolina native born (Eunice Kathleen Waymon) switched musical lanes in 1963 and never turned back. Enraged by the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, as well as the tragic bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama that killed four little girls, Simone composed her landmark song “Mississippi Goddam.”
With acid in her voice, Simone spat, “Alabama’s gotten me so upset, Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows / Mississippi Goddam!” From the stage Carnegie Hall, where she first recorded the bleak track for Phillips Records in 1964, to marches throughout the south, Nina loudly wailed her anthem of social injustice in America. Ironically, it was also at Carnegie Hall where Nina performed her last concert in 2002.
“Mommy would tell the truth from the stage and people would stand up and applaud with tears rolling down their faces,” her daughter Lisa Stroud Celeste told me a year after her mother’s death. Also a singer, she sometimes performs under the single name Simone. “When she was coming up in the civil rights movement, she told me that she had finally found something she really believed in and could contribute to. She wanted to do her part and she wasn’t afraid.” When asked what gave her mom the strength to be so bold, Lisa merely smiled.
“It wasn’t about strength, it was about, ‘Fuck you.’ She told me after the release of that song, radio stations sent back boxes of her records, broken. But, she refused to be silenced. She told me when she first recorded ‘Mississippi Goddam’ that she was so angry, she strained her voice and it dropped an octave. Her voice was never the same afterwards.”
Indeed, the boldness of Nina Simone, who listened to Miriam Makeba, Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder records in her downtime, has inspired a new generation of singers and hip-hoppers (as well as writers, painters and photographers) including Public Enemy, Mary J. Blige, DJ Premier, Norah Jones, Talib Kweli and Alicia Keys.
“Sometimes when a person is too real, it can be a little scary,” Keys said in 2003. “When you’re telling the truth, sometimes people just don’t want to think about it.”
Music writer David Nathan, who became friends with Simone as a teenager living in England, stated, “You have to understand, entertainers of the ’50s and ’60s were not militant. They didn’t speak out on their personal views. Afrocentric before it was chic, Nina was very out front. The new generation of artists that rediscovered her, from Lauryn Hill to Michelle N’Degeocello, are attracted and intrigued by that militant stance as well as the music.”
Seven years after Nina Simone’s death at her home in the South of France, folks are still intrigued. “Her voice had a power that not everybody was ready to deal with,” singer/guitarist Tamar-Kali said before taking the stage at a recent Nina Simone Tribute at Aaron Davis Hall in New York City that offered ample proof of this artists’ impact on a new generation of soul singers.
As part of Harlem Stage/Uptown Nights line-up of wonderful shows, Tamar organized the tribute that included interpretations of Simone’s extensive repertoire as presented by Latasha Natasha Diggs, Imani Uzuri, Toli Nameless, Joi and featuring the Black Rock Coalition Orchestra.
“The first song I ever heard, I think, was ‘Four Women,’” Joi said from her home in Atlanta a few days before the show. “I was a small child and it made me feel frightened, empowered, and comfortable all at once. By the time I heard my next Nina selection years later, I was able to recognize her, immediately. I’ve felt at home in her songs ever since.” In the show, wearing all black and a top hat, Joi performed that classic song along with three others.
“When you hear her singing those songs, she is so dark and hardcore. There is something in her voice,” said Mary J. Blige, who is currently in talks with Lions Gate Studios about starring in a film about Nina Simone’s life and times. “I would love to take on that challenge in a film,” she said last December.
Simone is also the subject of a new biography, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (Pantheon Books, 2010) by Nadine Cohodas, author of a Dinah Washington biography. Although the new book corrects some details from Simone’s autobiography I Put A Spell On You, some reviewers have complained that it underplays the social and political context of the Civil Rights era.
Forty-seven years after the initial release of “Mississippi Goddam,” America might have a bi-racial man as president, but the Fox News–fueled Tea Party Movement continues to spout their racist views. When our beautiful First Lady can be publicly compared to a monkey, it’s obvious that we’ve still a long way to go.
“I recently made my eleven-year-old daughter listen to Nina Simone, because so many young people today don’t know who she is,” explained Brooklyn-based writer Jewel Allison, author of the 2009 poetry collection Stealing Peace. “Her music is still relevant today, because, unfortunately, the issues she sang about are still relevant today.”
For more essays by Michael Gonzales visit http://www.soulsummer.com/