Nina Simone: Day Three in a Several-Day Series Celebrating the Inimitable Artist
One of the most defining characteristics of Nina Simone is her utterly indefinable quality, and the countless contradictions and paradoxes that play such an integral role in both her identities as a musician and as a human being. I was particularly struck by this as I read my way through a series of essays and pieces amassed in Fader Magazine last summer, a compilation with remembrances and reflections offered up by a number of individuals, ranging from those who knew her personally (her daughter and her ex husband, friend and fellow musician Al Schackman) as well as a number of artists (including Jill Scott, Talib Kweli and Richard Linklater among many others) who feel their own work has been touched and inspired in some way by Nina and her music.
What fascinated me was the realization that all of these memories and tributes failed to function as a means of clarification, instead only seeming to emphasize how enigmatic she was for her whole life, and remains to this very day. Many contributors (rightly) celebrated her dedication to the Civil Rights Movement, but her ex husband seemed to indicate that Nina had deep reservations about her political involvement; some focus on the tremendous strength of her character and artistic dedication, others dwell on her obvious vulnerability. Everybody seems to possess some particular, private interpretation of Nina—to some she’s Nina the revolutionary, to others she’s Nina the tortured artist, to some she’s the angry expatriate and to others still a unifier of an almost religious sort. The thing is, all of these views are correct ones—she certainly embodies all of these emotions, ideologies and experiences, but at the same time manages to never quite be pegged by them. I love what my friend Kevin Lee had to say about this during an email exchange:
”…she really was something else. I don’t know if I’d ever want to know her in real life—seems like a mess—but in those live performances you can feel the fragments of her personality come together, feeling whole, united in the goal of expressing and emoting and exorcising all those demons in as eloquent was as can be.”
I’m not sure what to say beyond that. Somehow all of these pieces of Nina hang together, all interconnected somehow, almost miraculously combining and arranging into a mosaic that created an utterly unique person and artist.