Nina Simone is having a cultural moment. Songs like “Feeling Good” and “I Put a Spell on You” are used in numerous TV shows and commercials. A memorable Felix Da Housecat remix of “Sinnerman” continues to get play in nightclubs around the world. One of the most popular songs from Kanye West’s Yeezus, “Blood on the Leaves,” liberally samples from her haunting rendition of the anti-slavery classic “Strange Fruit.” The indie band Xiu Xiu recently issued Nina, a collection of songs she wrote and/or made famous. Last year, Meshell Ndegeocello did the same with Pour une âme souveraine: a dedication to nina simone. Finally, there is the controversial biopic on Simone’s final years in France, Nina, scheduled for release next year.
So the woman once lauded as the High Priestess of Soul seems remarkably present. But her activism, and the way she challenged audiences with her fearsome intellect, seems distant from our current societal mores for cheery pop capitalism. It is true that Xiu Xiu and Ndegeocello, both out-and-proud performers, have paid homage to a woman whose sexuality is the subject of fierce academic and fan debate. But lost on the contemporary listener is the way she incorporated motifs from classical and jazz compositions into her work. A mid-20th century listener that was raised on piano lessons and the great American songbook would have immediately picked up on these allusions. A post-millennial listener mostly educated through pop radio would not.
Simone, who passed away over ten years ago, left behind an intimidating catalog. Some were live performances, others were recorded in the studio, and many are a mixture of both. Her 1958 debut, Little Girl Blue, yielded the only top 40 hit of her career in “I Loves You Porgy,” which caught fire after the fortuitous release of the 1959 hit movie Porgy & Bess. But she didn’t earn her title as a vital cult act a la the great Gil Scott-Heron. Her albums sold well, and she landed a few hits on the R&B charts, too, including 1969’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
Where to dive in? Her voice, so deep and sonorous, yet sharp and expressive like a lovingly plucked cello bass, is a wonder everyone should hear.