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Issue 121

To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story

(RCA Legacy, 2008)

BY Klaus Walter (Translated by Nicholas Grindell) in Culture Digest | 12 MAR 09

In a memorable 1970 interview with Nina Simone, included on the DVD accompanying this three-CD box-set, the interviewer, thinking of Simone’s signature song, ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’ (1967), asks: ‘What is freedom for you?’ The reply bursts out of her: ‘No fear! To be free means to have no fear!’ As if she can hardly believe her own insight, she repeats this mantra: ‘No fear!’ And one can’t help thinking: if there was ever anyone who had no fear, who was free, then it was Simone.

Simone commanded respect as a singer, as a writer and even as a bandleader – an unheard of achievement for an African-American woman in the 1960s and ’70s. She made her own not only the songs of jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, but also those of classical songwriters like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, Bob Dylan and, time and again, The Beatles. As her producer Richard Seidel put it: ‘Nina Simone may have been the most eclectic performer in popular music of the 20th century.’ Yet Simone was not just a talented interpreter of other people’s material. With ‘Four Women’ (1966) and ‘To Be Young Gifted And Black’ (1970), she composed pioneering songs about the matrix of the African-American experience – slavery and racial segregation. This inherited experience was inscribed into her body and her voice for life, and allowed for no forgetting (or forgiving). ‘A few years ago, four young girls were killed in Alabama,’ she says, referring to the racist bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, as an introduction to the song ‘Mississippi Goddam’ (1964) on a recording made at a concert in New York on 7 April 1968, three days after the assassination of Simone’s friend Martin Luther King. ‘The murder of Dr King made me numb; I don’t know where I am,’ she says, and launches into the song like a one-woman Wrath-of-God gospel choir. Four minutes into the track, defying King’s highest principle, she says, ‘I ain’t bound to be non-violent,’ before breaking into slightly unhinged laughter, while the audience applauds and laughs along with her. She later turned this improvised speech into the song ‘Why (The King of Love Is Dead)’ (1968), a recording sadly missing from this otherwise excellent inventory of this exceptional artist’s work.

Where are the politically radical musicians with independent mindsets in today’s diversified music market? Simone’s legacy is most tangible amongst artists that play with gender roles: Berlin-based Canadian artist Peaches took her moniker from the slave daughter in Simone’s classic ‘Four Women’ while transgender singer Antony Hegarty never misses a chance to praise Simone, claiming: ‘her records made me want to be a singer’ and ‘she was my hotline to everything I was aspiring to’. And what about the lesbian, feminist, God-fearing rappers Yo! Majesty? Their record, released last year, is called ‘Futuristically speaking … never be afraid!’ Simone would have loved them.