Nina Simone's Time Is Now, Again ; A New Generation Discovers Her Unflinching Pursuit of Activism

By Tillet, Salamishah | International New York Times, June 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

Nina Simone's Time Is Now, Again ; A New Generation Discovers Her Unflinching Pursuit of Activism


Tillet, Salamishah, International New York Times


A new generation discovers her unflinching pursuit of political freedom and activism.

CORRECTION APPENDED

The feminist writer Germaine Greer once declared: "Every generation has to discover Nina Simone. She is evidence that female genius is real." This year, that just might happen for good.

Simone is striking posthumous gold as the inspiration for three films and a star-studded tribute album, and she was name-dropped in John Legend's Oscar acceptance speech for best song. This flurry comes on the heels of a decade-long resurgence: two biographies, a poetry collection, several plays, and the sampling of her signature haunting contralto by hip-hop performers including Jay Z, the Roots and, most relentlessly, Kanye West.

Fifty years after her prominence, Simone is now reaching her peak.

The documentary "What Happened, Miss Simone?" directed by Liz Garbus ("The Farm: Angola, USA") and due next week on Netflix, opens by exploring Simone's unorthodox blend of dusky, deep voice, classical music, gospel and jazz piano techniques, and civil rights and black-power musical activism.

Not only did she compose the movement staple "Mississippi Goddam," but she also broadened the parameters of the great American pop artist. "How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?" Simone asks in the film. "That to me is the definition of an artist." And in "What Happened," she emerges as a singer whose unflinching pursuit of musical and political freedom establishes her appeal for contemporary activism.

Simone's androgynous voice, genre-breaking musicianship and political consciousness may have concerned 1960s and '70s marketing executives and concert promoters, but those are a huge draw for today's gay, lesbian, black and female artists who want to be taken seriously for their talent, their activism or a combination of both.

"Nina has never stopped being relevant because her activism was so right on, unique, strong, said with such passion and directness," Ms. Garbus said in an interview at a Brooklyn bakery. "But why has she come back now?" she asked, answering her own question by pointing to how little has changed, citing the protests over the police killings of unarmed African-Americans like Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray.

While Simone's lyrical indictment of racial segregation and her work on behalf of civil rights organizations connects her to our contemporary moment, those closest to her felt more comfortable telling Simone's story after her death in 2003. As Ms. Garbus said, "From a filmmaking point of view, the answer for her return is also because of the estate, and people being ready to relinquish some control of her story."

In this case, it was Simone's daughter, the singer and actress Lisa Simone Kelly, who shared personal diaries, letters, and audio and video footage with Ms. Garbus and has an executive producer credit on the film. Speaking by phone from her mother's former home in Carry-le-Rouet, France, Ms. Kelly said: "It has been on my watch that this film was made. And I believe that my mother would have been forgotten if the family, my husband and I, had not taken the right steps to find the right team for her to be remembered in American culture on her own terms."

Ms. Kelly is only partly right. Over the past decade, a steady stream of reissued albums and previously unheard interviews and songs, as well as unseen concert footage, have flooded the market. But the estate has enabled and impaired Simone's revival. There has been a dizzying array of lawsuits over the rights to her master recordings in the past 25 years, a tangled situation that includes a recent Sony Music move to rescind a deal with the estate.

The most high-profile controversy about Simone's legacy, however, involves Cynthia Mort's biopic, "Nina," due later this year. Starring Zoe Saldana in the title role, the film was initially beleaguered by public criticism over the casting, an antagonism further fueled by leaked photos of Ms. …

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