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(Credit: Fotopersbureau de Boer)

Music

Watch rare footage of Nina Simone performing in 1990

The scene opens with Nina Simone in a taxi, being courted to a faraway destination. She’s growing impatient, feeling that the traffic is slowing them down, but she perks up as they near her destination. It’s a fascinating clip, portraying the chanteuse as the person her art seldomly permitted her to show the world. Indeed, she seems fragile, feeling that this vehicle is her only vessel of security in an industry that’s growing more precariously dangerous by the day.

She sits patiently, as wafts of choral singers sing over her, bringing dimensions to the setting that veers far beyond the confines of a car, driving down a city street. Simone seems contemplative, pondering the changes in both her set and personal life. It’s refreshing to see her in such an unguarded state of mind, as the songstress is normally so caught up in the fusion and the power of her act.

Densely, she shies away from the camera, as a montage tips viewers away from the hustle and bustle of an outside street, into the more comfortable confines of a library setting. The camera pivots over a piano, carefully taking in the decor and the milieu of the jazz genre.

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The footage is both a celebration and a dissertation on the great artist, who overcame racial prejudice to become one of the foremost musical artists of her generation. But the stress of the career, not least pandering to an audience who were unaccustomed to a woman of colour commanding the scene, left a mark on Simone in later years.

“I was trying to get out of the music business,” she recalled. “Because it’s too hard. It’s a hard business. And it’s not fair. So I was trying to settle down and have a life apart from this.”

Yet it was impossible to escape the imprint she made on the world as a whole, as she flitted from genre to the next, capturing the essence, integrity and authority of the tune, before changing tracks for something completely different entirely. The footage features snippets of her last performance, captured at the Paris Olympia (Bruno Coquatrix), where seated behind the piano, she embraces the characters, the context and the contradictions that cemented her life’s work.

The songs were designed for the live stage, and the audiences seem to enjoy the music, clapping happily along to the standards, anticipating the next barrelling riff, or the next lyrical phrase. Caught in the music, Simone lets out the etchings of a smile, clearly comfortable with what she is playing, and where she is going with the material.

By 1990, she seemed more relaxed in her role as stateswoman of a generation that was slowly falling away to memories and time past. The genre, she felt, needed to take on a more sophisticated form to survive.

“Well, in general, I like what’s happening in pop music,” Simone explained.”It’s taking on some standards—I’m glad to say—that it should have had years ago. I believe the time will come when the whole definition of pop music will change. It will get to the point where a song will not be a good song until it has a high level of creativity in writing and performance. In other words, in order to be popular, songs will have to meet these high standards.”

‘Four Women’ remains her most accomplished work, portraying the many stereotypes black women were forced to inhabit during their lifetime. There was the trappings of the tragic mulatto, the defiance of the sex worker, the power and influence of the mother, or the fury of a Black woman searching for equality and redemption. What it didn’t allow for was accepting an artist as an artist, and the performer could only have so much sway if they pandered to the expectations of the art as was permitted by a predominantly white audience.

Simone was one of the first artists to transcend the barriers, and like Aretha Franklin, she enjoyed a success that had little to do with race or gender, but by virtue of the commitment to her work. She found a home in France, where she was respected as a person in a way she couldn’t muster in her homeland. And in jazz she found, she had a style of music that fitted her lifestyle, as it cloaked her in the many possibilities that her politics could allow for.

In many ways, the music owes as much a debt to her as she does to it, but the work only held vitality and vibrancy because of the artist who guided it. What the genre needed was humility, and the following footage finds a legend humbled by the power of her gift, and the continuing influence of her legacy.

Stream the footage of Nina Simone in 1990 below.