Nina Simone, the ‘High Priestess of Soul,’ was born February 21, 1933. Here are six of the revolutionary icon’s most soulful songs.
Nearly 15 years after her passing, traces of singer, songwriter, pianist and activist Nina Simone can still be found in contemporary culture, from an Oscar-nominated documentary to a controversially-casted biopic, a song on Jay-Z’s newest album and her upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nina’s voice — raw and impossible to ignore — remains one of the most recognizable of the 21st century. And whether she’s singing about the state of the world or the state of her soul, her live performances feel just as urgent now as they must have decades ago.
Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, on February 21, 1933, Nina started playing piano as early as three and, years later, attended Juilliard with the help of a scholarship funded by her community. After being rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music — because of her skin color, she suspected — she changed her name and started playing jazz, the blues and standards in Atlantic City. At age 25, she had her first and only top-20 hit in the U.S.: “I Loves You Porgy.”
Nina wasn’t as airy as Motown, and she didn’t have Aretha’s pipes. But she was the true definition of an artist, someone willing to sacrifice her career and jeopardize her legacy if it meant singing what was in her soul. In honor of what would have been Nina Simone’s 85th birthday, here are just six of her most soulful songs.
1. ‘Mississippi Goddam’
Learning about the civil rights movement without knowing “Mississippi Goddam” is like watching a film without sound. Actually, it’s like starting a film 45 minutes in without any information about what you missed.
The scathing critique that is “Mississippi Goddam” was Nina’s direct response to two events in 1963: the murder of Medgar Evers in Decatur, Mississippi, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Banned by record stores across the South (purportedly because of its blasphemous language), this song is an artifact, a cultural thermometer that depicts just how heated those times were. In less than five minutes, Nina conveys the conflicting frustrations and fears of Black citizens all over the U.S.: She calls for prayer, but then admits she has stopped believing in it. She has talked “real fine like a lady” and has been patient, as white society has instructed — but she is still kept down. When a man is gunned down in his own driveway in front of his wife and children, and when four little girls can’t go to church and return home safely, the people who “keep on saying, ‘Go slow!’” seem delusional. The system isn’t working. Or worse: It’s rigged.
Nina wrote this galloping tune in less than an hour, but it would brand her forevermore a political musician. Years later its message still resonates, having even been repurposed for today as a critique of places like Ferguson, Florida and the Carolinas.
2. ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’
I grew up hearing and loving The Animals’ version of this song, which in 1965 had reached number 15 on the Billboard charts. Brooding and introspective, it made sense for the band’s MO: The Animals were on the bluesier side of the British Invasion spectrum, their version of “House of the Rising Sun” having been a number-one hit the year before (which, incidentally, Nina had also covered a few years earlier). But “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was originally written for Nina in 1964 — and when you listen to her version, it’s pretty clear why.
Nina’s is slower, grander and a touch sadder. Her fragility is plain as day as she pleads with her lover to understand that she can’t help that she’s sometimes up, sometimes down. And in hindsight, it’s hard not to see that she’s speaking not only as a lover but also, simply, as a Black woman living in a country that doesn’t respect her. “Life has its problems, and I get more than my share,” she explains. Of course she’s going to “seem edgy.” Wouldn’t anybody?
3. ‘Four Women’
“Four Women” is just one of Nina’s many songs that have been integrated into the hip-hop fold. Like the greatest songs of the hip-hop genre, “Four Women” tells a story specific to the Black community, capturing the perspectives of four different generations of four different women — whose skin is “black,” “yellow,” “tan” and “brown” — over the span of just four and a half minutes
Jay-Z incorporates both Nina’s haunting melody and the line “My skin is black” on his latest album, 4:44. On its own, “The Story of O.J.” is a lot to unpack. The video that accompanies it, rife with images reminiscent of racist early cartoons, is a bit perplexing. But no matter how you feel about Jay-Z, his refrain echoes Nina’s. You can call yourself what you want, he says — “light” or “dark,” “faux” or “real” — but at the end of the day, to many, you’re still just black.
“Four Women” is nothing like “Feeling Good” or “I Put a Spell on You.” It’s not commercial, it’s not uplifting, and it’s not a rallying cry — at least, not outright. But it does contain a message about race and perception that, at its core, may always be relevant. Hip-hop artists like Jay-Z, Talib Kweli and Kanye West pump blood back into the veins of deep cuts. And in the age of YouTube, they (hopefully) encourage young listeners to unearth the source material.
4. ‘I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl’
The original 1931 version of this song, in which Bessie Smith begs for “a little hot dog between [her] rolls,” is racy enough to raise eyebrows today. Nina’s more somber 1967 rendition, however, speaks less to a fleeting sexual yearning and more to a desire for fulfilling, honest-to-goodness companionship. “I’m unlucky at marriages, not so unlucky at love,” she once said, according to Alan Light’s 2015 biography.
She was married twice: first to a beatnik; second to Andrew Stroud, a police detective who became her manager and secured her dream of playing at Carnegie Hall. But Stroud was very much a feared and jealous man, and their relationship was tumultuous: Nina once told an interviewer that Stroud put a gun to her head and raped her after seeing her save a fan’s number in her pocket. “He scared me to death,” she said. In 1971, after 10 years of marriage, she would divorce him.
5. ‘Ain’t Got No / I Got Life’
With its free-love naked actors and unusually long set list, the rock musical Hair scandalized more than a few people when it first debuted in 1967. But it also spurred songs that would become hits for a few commercial artists. Nina was one of them, and her medley “Ain’t Got No / I Got Life” became a number-two hit in the U.K.
This medley isn’t as allegorical as Nina’s other songs, which could be the reason it didn’t chart in the States. But it’s impossible to deny the spark that fills her eye around 1:57 as her voice climbs an octave when she sings, “What have I got? Why am I alive, anyway?” And as the song transitions into “I Got Life,” there’s something in the way she bops her head to and fro that will make even the most cynical of listeners tap their foot in response. “I’ve got headaches and toothaches like you,” she sings, but “I got my heart, got my soul, got my back.”
6. ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’
In the opening seconds of a live recording of this song, Simone can be heard warning her audience: “Now, it is not addressed primarily to white people, though it does not put you down in any way. It simply ignores you.”
The audience laughs; a rousing applause erupts.
“For my people need all the inspiration and love that they can get,” she explains.
This organ-heavy gospel tune sounds just as fit for a Black church as it does for a concert hall. The punctuated pause that follows the refrain “To be young, gifted and Black” beseeches listeners to stop and truly let that statement sink in. What does that mean, really? To be all those things, at once?
Adopted by the NAACP, named CORE’s Black National Anthem, and covered not long afterward by both Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” promotes self-confidence and unapologetic pride in one’s Black heritage, a notion that — until fairly recently at the time with the rise of the Black Panther Party — had not been a particularly mainstream notion. Adding to this song’s soulful significance is that it was written for her dear friend Lorraine Hansberry, playwright of A Raisin in the Sun who was also an outspoken critic of the treatment of Black Americans before her untimely death from pancreatic cancer.
Hansberry was just one of the many revolutionaries the singer surrounded herself with, her list of friends and mentors including names such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael and Miriam Makeba. Nina was involved with her times in a way that we, in the era of social media, take for granted. That is, until she became disillusioned with the U.S., as so many artists have, and moved abroad.
But before that, Nina’s social obligations ran deep. “All I can do is expose the sickness; that’s my job,” she once said. “To me, American society is nothing but a cancer, and it must be exposed before it can be cured. I am not the doctor to cure it, however, sugar.”