Whilst Beyoncé was making history as the first black female artist to headline Coachella, another icon of music was being honoured for her own contribution to the art, with her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the one and only, Nina Simone.
Simone was nominated for the first time this year, despite being eligible since 1983, and joined the likes of Bon Jovi, Dire Straights and Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the nights list of honors. In its description of Simone, the Hall wrote: “Nina Simone’s unapologetic rage and accusatory voice named names and took no prisoners in the African-American struggle for equality in the early 1960s.” Indeed, Simone could be a controversial figure in her bold approach to life, an element that was brought out in her often radical music and fearless tone of voice. Yet she remained an iconic figure who rewrote the rules as to what it meant to be a black woman in show business.
R&B artist Mary J. Blige gave a touching speech on the night in homage to the influence Simone has had on herself and several artists topping the charts today, whilst also taking pains to highlight the turbulence Simone experienced in her personal life. Blige stated: “Nina sang for all her pain, her joy, her confusion, her happiness, her sickness, her fight. She fought through all the stereotypes. She fought for her identity. She fought for her life.” A woman of deep complexity, she didn’t toe the commercial line like that of her peers. Aretha Franklin, she was not. Instead, she spoke her mind and was unapologetic in doing so, with her ethos rooted firmly in rock & roll.
Though most often referred to as a jazz singer, Simone’s music spanned decades and genres, with her classical training and eclectic style continuing to reverberate within this generation of music lovers. She was able to transcend boundaries whilst remaining distinctive in her sound and musicality. Beginning her career as a student at Julliard where she studied to be a concert pianist, she later applied to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia but was rejected due to means she felt were fueled by her race, no doubt laying the foundations for which her later work was centered. To help pay her bills, she began performing in Atlantic City, though before long she had garnered herself a following and coupled with her hit rendition of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” she began carving out a name for herself across the globe.
Following this initial success, a friskier, jazzier sound began to emanate from this piano playing chanteuse. Successes such as “My Baby Just Cares For Me” and “I’m Feeling Good” cemented her in the troves of music iconography, as she also took on the mantel as a pioneer of the civil rights movement. Her sound was as unclassifiable as she was and it comes as no surprise that so many stylistically diverse acts hail Simone as an influence of theirs.
You never really knew what you were going to get next with Ms. Nina. Her eclectic body of work shows an evolution of popular music itself, remaining unpredictable in her music as she was in her character.