Nina Simone is a gem. If you’re not familiar with her music, it’s amazing. But that’s another topic altogether.
I discovered Nina through Jeff Buckley. He’s covered several of her songs, notably Lilac Wine, and has often sung her praises in interviews.
And isn’t that the best way to discover an artist?
Her vocal range is quite low for a female, but it’s round and resonant and somber.
For all her fame and renown, though, she was largely dissatisfied with her success throughout her life. As a black female living right through the heart of the American civil rights movement, she suffered to get the acclaim and recognition she probably deserved.
That’s not to say she wasn’t successful. She had radio play. She played gigs and concerts. She had friends in high places. She had a platform bigger than most musicians ever get, and that’s especially saying something considering her social standing.
She was friends with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and she was so heavily involved in the movement that some of her songs were banned from the airwaves for being too political or provocative.
So, why are we talking about her now?
Because in 2018, Nina Simone will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Nina died back in 2003, and at the time she wasn’t even living in the US. She had been so fed up with the state of things here that she left. She felt as though we didn’t appreciate her for what she was, which was probably true.
She thought herself to be the victim of racial discrimination several times over, especially the time when she was denied admission to a prestigious music school, despite being more than qualified to attend.
I think for her, it came down to being put in a box, and her struggle isn’t one that’s unfamiliar today.
People like their musicians to play music – but only the music they like and want to hear. They don’t want anything too socially-driven or -motivated, and they don’t want anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. But of course, anything truly expressive will inevitably make some people uncomfortable.
And why is that? Is it because it forces people to confront things that they’re trying to avoid, whether consciously or subconsciously? Or could it be because people are exhausted from hearing people complain about things that they don’t think are legitimate complaints?
It’s all relative.
For instance, if a friend complains to you about something that you don’t deem to be a big enough problem for you to hear about, what’s your reaction? You either turn off your ears and offer an empty, “Yeah dude, that sucks,” or you tell them, “Dude, it’s not a big deal,” and then promptly change the subject.
It’s not fun to hear someone complain, whether or not their concerns are legitimate and probably should merit a proper response.
But look at Kaepernick. However you feel about his chosen form of protest, one thing that kept coming up in his criticism had nothing to do with his argument or his methods.
“Just play football, man.”
We want our entertainers to entertain us, and little else. I suppose that’s part of the reason why people get so upset whenever celebrities make social, political, or economic comments, but see my article on Eminem for more on that.
Either way, Nina wasn’t inclined to stay in her lane. She disapproved so greatly of her lane that she left the country that tried to keep her contained.
And can you imagine what that must be like for an artist? People turn to art because they have something inside of them that they want to express, and art is the best way they know how to do it.
It’s like Sebastian in La La Land. He was literally fired from a gig because he played something off of the boring, uninspired Christmas setlist. He couldn’t help himself.
But art, in whatever form it takes, is the commentary of the time. Arguably more than the talking heads on the news. Or more than the pundits with podcasts. Maybe even more than the drunk parrots “debating” in bars.
Because art is the most true form of expression, in my opinion. It exists because it must. It’s literally bursting out of the creator and taking on a form that isn’t always easily-digested or processed or understood. It’s inspired by something maybe even the creator doesn’t fully understand. It’s a feeling brought to life and made tangible.
Imagine putting that in a box.
That’s what Nina was up against. The things close to her heart were not things that we wanted to hear at the time. We wanted her to sing about “Feeling Good” and loving Porgy. But as she continued to grow as an artist and expand beyond her safe boundaries, her audience wasn’t ready for it.
So, if we had a Nina today (which we do), are we any more receptive to their messages than we were 50 years ago? Have we learned to appreciate our artists for their contributions to the collective voice of society and the mark they leave on our history? Or are we still reactive and defensive when their words offend us or force us to confront an issue as it is seen from the other side?
Will it still take us 50 years of retrospection to finally appreciate their impact and genius?