As possibly the greatest singer of all time, an unflinching performer and a songstress of unquestionable majesty, you’d be hard pushed to argue that Nina Simone’s career was anything but stellar. However, despite her brilliance and the boon that it provided for the masses, things should have been very different if it wasn’t for sickening prejudice. Fortunately, for our sakes, she transfigured the injustice she suffered and illuminated issues with the sort of grace and bravery that summoned change with beauty.
When we recently spoke to Roger Wilson of the Black Lives in Music organisation, he told us his own origin story in music. “I decided to try for music college, and I was successful. Although I was keen to be an orchestral musician, I changed direction as I didn’t think it was the right environment for someone who looked like me and had my background,” he explained. This, in itself, highlights the issue of diversity and representation.
In Nina Simone’s era, this was even more fervent. However, the problem remains to this day as even the perception of predominantly white orchestras creates an aesthetic barrier from the get-go for aspiring musicians. This is reflected in the fact that the survey found that 71% of Black music professionals felt that there was no traditional career path available for them in the industry.
When Nina Simone was first making headway as a musician, she too wanted to enter the classical world that had stirred her as a child. Tragically, when she applied to the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, she was turned away from the classical field because of the colour of her skin. As her own daughter, Lisa Celeste ‘Simone’ Stroud, would opine: “Can you imagine putting in five hours of practising every day for five to seven years and you get to your audition and they reject you and it’s not because you weren’t good enough but because of how you look?”
While the institute later awarded Simone an honorary degree two days before her death in 2003, the soul sensation bared the scars of the injustice throughout her career. As Nick Cave once wrote: “The great Nina Simone was a living grievance machine — her race, her gender, her misused talents (she wanted to be a classical pianist) — and this rage infused all her work, and is what makes it so multi-layered.”
Continuing: “Even her most beautiful love songs, which I count as some of the most incandescent works of art ever recorded, were marinated in a sense of resentment and contempt for the workings of the world. It is this exhilarating collision of opposing forces — love and scorn — that makes Nina Simone’s existential and political protestations so compelling.”
Simone would later reflect on her activism and remark: “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” This bold defiance imbues her beautiful work with unrivalled power. While we have been the benefactors of this, it is also our duty to ensure that the same hurdles she faced are levelled in future.