Celebrating the Eternal Nina Simone
There’s a lot of hyperbole and subjectivity when one starts discussing the GOATS of any subject. Jordan or Lebron? Lennon or McCartney? Picasso or Matisse? Kubrick or Spielberg? With regards to singing, some people love Aretha Franklin’s powerful presence, others prefer Mariah Carey’s 4,930,214 octave voice, but my soul as always been drawn to the weary realism of Tryon’s own Nina Simone, who would have turned 84 today. A one of a kind person and performer, Simone not only expanded the boundaries of music in genres, such as classical, jazz, gospel, and folk, but she worked effortlessly to get her and her people’s music out into the world.
A political fighter, a complex soul, and a career churned over by the industry, nothing came easy for the artist that would become Nina Simone. The sixth child of a preacher, Simone — born Eunice Kathleen Waymon was musical from the start. At age three she began playing piano performing in her father’s church.
Being raised in the south, Waymon was confronted with Jim Crow everyday. From an early age she displayed a strong willed sense of right and wrong. At her first recital when she was twelve, she refused to play until her parents were allowed to sit at the front. Years later, as a prodigy she was denied entry to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, due to her skin color.
It’s important to note that Simone was a classicist a heart. She loved and respected the craft of composing, and preferred it to pop songwriting for pretty much her entire life. Being ousted and rejected by this community broke, scarred, and artistically drove her for much of her life.
Initially just a classical pianist, she learned to accompany herself out of necessity, while playing in dimly lit cocktail bars in Philly. It is here where Eunice Wayman created the guise Nina Simone. She did so in order to hide the fact that she was playing the “Devil’s Music” from her religious family. Circumstances forced her to be dexterous with her musicianship, which literally lead to her to finding her voice as an artist.
So earthy and wistful with its timbre — it’s humanity’s consciousness personified through melody. The ethos of Simone is somewhere between pride and regret. The old adage that the artist is always either filled with crippling self-doubt, or resounding confidence fits snugly with Simone’s volatile personality and musical character. “The High Priestess of Soul” was stubbornly and restlessly confident. Hell, she’s best remembered from the sharply critical protest anthem, “Mississippi Goddamn,” but that doesn’t distract from the fragility and remorse that haunts much of her discography.
Perhaps the most gripping aspect of Simone’s background is that she was surrounded by rejection for much of her career, but yet she persisted while being fiercely unapologetic. Despite tragedy in her personal and professional life, Simone trail-blazed the path that has allowed so many fellow African-American musicians to be successful.
Always a constant conundrum — Simone evolved from an inspiring classicist to an artist whose melodies were the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement. Simone’s success was up and down throughout her career for a variety of reasons — many attributed to her uneasy personality, but her legacy that remains so influential because of that unwavering, uncompromising sense belief. A liberating hero for the African-American community, and a distinctive voice within the musical world, Simone’s artistry challenged perceptions, norms, and even laws. Simone once stated: “An artist is suppose to reflect the times,” and she did so, remarkably and translucently. Her music moves you with a rousing sense of purpose and authority, which has seldomly been seen, or heard since.