Jazz icon Nina Simone's time is now, again

Jazz singer Nina Simone (above, in a photo taken in New York in 1965) has not been forgotten, with artists such as Lauryn Hill and Kanye West keeping her relevant in their music.
Jazz singer Nina Simone (above, in a photo taken in New York in 1965) has not been forgotten, with artists such as Lauryn Hill and Kanye West keeping her relevant in their music.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Jazz singer Nina Simone (left, in a photo taken in New York in 1965) has not been forgotten, with artists such as Lauryn Hill (below left) and Kanye West (below) keeping her relevant in their music.
Jazz singer Nina Simone has not been forgotten, with artists such as Lauryn Hill (above) and Kanye West keeping her relevant in their music.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Jazz singer Nina Simone (left, in a photo taken in New York in 1965) has not been forgotten, with artists such as Lauryn Hill (below left) and Kanye West (below) keeping her relevant in their music.
Jazz singer Nina Simone has not been forgotten, with artists such as Lauryn Hill and Kanye West (above) keeping her relevant in their music.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Fifty years after the late artist's prominence, she is inspiring three films and a tribute album

New York - Feminist writer Germaine Greer once declared: "Every generation has to discover Nina Simone. She is evidence that female genius is real."

This year, that just might happen for good. Jazz singer Simone is striking posthumous gold as the inspiration for three films and a star-studded tribute album, and she was name-dropped in John Legend's Oscar acceptance speech for best song.

This flurry comes on the heels of a decade-long resurgence: two biographies, a poetry collection, several plays and the sampling of her signature haunting contralto by hip-hop performers including Jay Z, The Roots and, most relentlessly, Kanye West.

 

  • “I grew up listening to Nina Simone, so I believed everyone spoke as freely as she did.”

    - Hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill, on Nina Simone’s influence

Fifty years after her prominence, Simone is now reaching her peak.

The documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus and due on Wednesday in New York and two days later on Netflix, opens by exploring Simone's unorthodox blend of dusky, deep voice, classical music, gospel and jazz piano techniques, and civil rights and black-power musical activism.

Not only did she compose the movement staple Mississippi Goddamn, but she also broadened the parameters of the great American pop artist. "How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?" she asks in the film. "That to me is the definition of an artist."

And in What Happened, she emerges as a singer whose unflinching pursuit of musical and political freedom establishes her appeal for contemporary activism.

"Nina has never stopped being relevant because her activism was so right on, unique, strong, said with such passion and directness," Garbus said in an interview.

"But why has she come back now?" she asked, answering her own question by pointing to how little has changed, citing the protests over the police killings in the United States of unarmed AfricanAmericans such as Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray.

While Simone's lyrical indictment of racial segregation and her work on behalf of civil rights organisations connect her to the contemporary moment, those closest to her felt more comfortable telling Simone's story after her death in 2003.

It was Simone's daughter, singer and actress Lisa Simone Kelly, who shared personal diaries, letters and audio and video footage with Garbus and has an executive producer credit on the film.

Speaking by telephone from her mother's former home in Carry-le-Rouet, France, Kelly said: "It has been on my watch that this film was made. And I believe that my mother would have been forgotten if the family, my husband and I, had not taken the right steps to find the right team for her to be remembered in American culture on her own terms."

Kelly is only partly right.

Over the past decade, a steady stream of reissued albums and previously unheard interviews and songs, as well as unseen concert footage have flooded the market.

But the estate has enabled and impaired Simone's revival. There has been a dizzying array of lawsuits over the rights to her master recordings in the past 25 years, a tangled situation that includes a recent Sony Music move to rescind a deal with the estate.

The most high-profile controversy about Simone's legacy, however, involves Cynthia Mort's biopic, Nina, due this year.

Starring Zoe Saldana in the title role, the film was initially beleaguered by public criticism over the casting, an antagonism fuelled further by leaked photos of Saldana with darkened skin and a nose prosthetic.

Eventually, the film's release was set back even more by Mort's own 2014 lawsuit against the production company, which she accused of hijacking the film, as The Hollywood Reporter put it.

Though Saldana told InStyle magazine that "I didn't think I was right for the part", the fallout and online petition calling for a boycott of the film nevertheless revealed a deep cultural investment in both Simone's politics and aesthetics by a new generation.

Born Eunice Waymon in 1933, Simone grew up in segregated Tyron, North Carolina. At three, she was playing her mother's favourite gospel hymns for their church choir on piano; by eight, her talents garnered her so much attention that her mother's white employer offered to pay for her classical music lessons for a year.

Determined to become a premier classical pianist, Simone trained at Juilliard for a year, then sought and was denied admission to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia - a heartbreaking rejection that led to a series of reinventions, renaming herself Nina Simone, performing in Atlantic City nightclubs and adopting jazz standards in her repertoire.

She would go on to have her only Top 40 hit with I Loves You, Porgy in 1959 off her debut album, Little Girl Blue.

To further her music career, she moved back to New York, where she befriended activist-writers Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Malcolm X.

Influenced by these political friendships and the momentum of the civil rights movement, she composed Mississippi Goddamn in 1964 in response to the assassination of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the murder of four African-American girls in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, a year earlier.

The song was Simone at her best - a sly blend of the show tune, searing racial critique and apocalyptic warning.

Her growing political involvement affected both her professional and personal life.

Though she was bisexual, her longest romance was her 11-year turbulent marriage to Andy Stroud, a former police officer who managed her career for most of the 1960s. He would use physical and sexual abuse to limit her activism and friendships and to control her unpredictable emotional outbursts.

Unfortunately, it would take another 20 years for Simone's "mood swings" to be diagnosed as a bipolar disorder.

In the interim, she left her marriage and country, becoming an expatriate in Liberia, Switzerland, then France. She died in 2003 at her home in France.

Today, her multitudinous identity captures the mood of young people yearning to bring together modern movements for racial, gender and sexual equality.

This is a large part of the appeal of the documentary The Amazing Nina Simone, by Jeff L. Lieberman, which features more than 50 interviews with the musician's family, associates and academics, scheduled to be released in autumn.

But it has been hip-hop, the genre that Simone once said had "ruined music, as far as I'm concerned", that has kept her musically relevant more than anything else.

The two hip-hop artists most responsible for her current ubiquity are West and Lauryn Hill. West has rendered Simone hip-hop- and pop-friendly by sampling her in songs such as Bad News, New Day and Blood On The Leaves. While he declined to comment on Simone, like her, he fashions himself as a controversial if not misunderstood rebel.

Hill was one of the first rappers to mention Simone in song - on the Fugees' Ready Or Not in 1996 - and she recorded several songs for Nina Revisited: A Tribute To Nina Simone, an album (due on July 10) tied to What Happened, Miss Simone?

Jayson Jackson, Hill's former manager and a producer of Garbus' film, conceived Nina Revisited and said that while working on the album, Hill told him: "I grew up listening to Nina Simone, so I believed everyone spoke as freely as she did."

New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline 'Jazz icon Nina Simone's time is now, again'. Print Edition | Subscribe