Immortality only comes to those who allow their gift to consume like an unbridled fire, and resurrect them to live for eternity, ascending past their lives. Their life and craft become one, reaching mystical status. Nina Simone is one of these immortals, casting a spell on several generations of music lovers and artists.
Her contralto voice burrowed through our ears and into our souls; echoing the past, present and future pain of Black life. Her classical piano skills are a treat; God’s blessing that teased mere mortals.
Recent events in this country attest to the enduring nature of her music. Pop culture is revisiting her iconic status—the controversial biopic based on her life, Nina, starring Zoe Saldana, will be released by year’s end. And this Friday, Netflix will release the documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? A tribute album featuring several contemporary artists covering many of her songs will be released with the documentary.
Though documentaries and biopics are meant to make the subjects life more clear, Nina Simone expressed herself through music on a level many cannot reach. She has many indelible songs, but there are seven songs which show the sempiternal nature of her music. These songs show her as a civil rights activist, a minister of Black pride and the embodiment of the visceral pain of love.
She both represents, and transcends her cultural peak during the civil rights movement. “Mississippi Goddamn” was payback from those Black souls who became the harvest of a strange and bitter crop. In the wake of Medgar Evers’ assassination, she bellows how her faith is shaken. She vocalizes her anger over of not belonging anywhere, and the tiredness from fighting for basic human dignity. The stark lyrics of “Baltimore” are betrayed by the mellow, reggae beat of the song. In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, “Baltimore” becomes the embodiment of how hard it is to live in the city.
Nina Simone always preached Black pride; she made Black beautiful. “Four Women” personified the universal nature of suffering for Black women everywhere. Each woman is given a name, vocalizing the burdens of societal pressures, prejudices and stereotypes placed on Black women. Her song, “Color Is a Beautiful Thing,” parallels “Jesus Loves Me” in its simplicity, creating a song simple enough for Black children to embrace, learn and love.
No one before Nina Simone or since could sing about the complexity of love as she did. With “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” she warns and apologizes to her lover that, “If I seem edgy/I want you to know/I never mean to take it out on you/Life has its problems/And I get more than my share/But that’s the one thing I never mean to do/Cause I love you.”
In “Feeling Good” she’s all too eager to exclaim the newness of freedom, shaking off the constraints of her past relationships and love itself. But with “Wild is the Wind” she discovers how freedom is bittersweet. She understands one cannot live a life alone once the innate desire of love is awakened. However, her love cannot be grasped, fleeing through her lover’s fingers despite his best efforts to hold onto her.
Nina Simone is a woman of many seasons: a civil rights activist, a classical pianist, a soulful singer, a proud Black woman and the angry voice of disenfranchisement. From these mystical ingredients an immortal rises.
Before What Happened, Miss Simone? comes out and shows the woman behind the legend, it’s only right to listen to these songs. The songs aren’t just part of the journey, they are her. Trying to see any biopic or documentary without listening to the music is like staring out of a glass darkly. It’s these songs that most embody her—they open the door for Nina Simone to cast her spell.