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Nina Simone
Nina Simone in the Netflix original documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?”Courtesy of Peter Rodis

Nina Simone’s complex voice

The singer’s controversial new biopic doesn’t acknowledge how she tore down the expectations of what a black female musician should sound like

It’s a voice we’re supposed to hate. Gloomy, uninviting, and hoarse. Overpowering and booming in the low register, rocky and rasping when high. It’s often unstable, fluctuating within both pitch and timbre. Yet it’s these imperfections that make a voice so beautifully Nina Simone. Simone’s legacy has once again been called to question with the release of Nina, the Zoe Saldana starring biopic that’s sparked a sea of controversy, with a light-skinned Saldana painted in dark makeup akin to blackface, with her even sporting a prosthetic nose. For Simone, a musician whose artistry was so deeply intertwined with her skin tone, this proves to be painfully problematic. And worryingly, it sends a demeaning message to all black girls, particularly dark skinned black girls worldwide. While Nina’s battle with her blackness came to define her, she ultimately used it prove that black can be beautiful and bold within society’s whitewashed standards.

What should a black female artist sound like? This is the aesthetic conundrum an artist as complex as Nina Simone spent the bulk of her career pondering. Simone’s music was distinct yet diverse, driving category-happy critics insane as she shifted between covers of Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, and traditional Norwegian folk songs. Many labeled her jazz, a tag Simone called “a white term to define black people.” Nina called her sound “black classical music,” shaping her identity around the intensive classical training she received since the age of three. She shattered frequent comparisons to Billie Holiday, furiously reducing them to the music press’s prejudice when discussing the wide variety within black female music. “People couldn’t get past the fact that we were both black… calling me a jazz singer was a way of ignoring my musical background because I didn’t fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be,” she writes in her autobiography I Put a Spell on You. The pair’s versions of “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, for example, are poles apart. Billie sits cozily in the pocket with her trademark rasp, her voice a solo instrument against the lush orchestration, while Nina yearns mournfully in a low trembling pitch, stripping the dense orchestral arrangement down to her voice and some impressionist piano. Her vocal becomes a third layer, complementing the piano with its contrapuntal rhythms and melodies.

“While Nina’s battle with her blackness came to define her, she ultimately used it prove that black can be beautiful and bold within society’s whitewashed standards”

“I never set out to be a singer, so I don’t think much about singing,” Simone admitted. Instead her aspirations were determined by her natural virtuosity on the piano, with her dreaming of becoming Carnegie Hall's first black concert pianist. At age 17, she gained a scholarship to the renowned Juilliard School of Music, and upon graduation played Atlantic City’s Midtown Bar and Grill to fund more piano lessons. It was the owner of Midtown who insisted Simone sing or find a new job, a demand that changed her course forever.

The fusion of Simone’s classical piano and her innovative interpretations of pop and jazz standards were an instant hit. Her perfect pitch and immaculate memory allowed her to recall popular songs she barely knew, using their hooks as a foundation in which to improvise on the piano. “I am very concerned with the perfection of my piano playing and articulating the song’s message, but I don’t worry about my voice,” she once said. As a result, her singing eludes classification. She shimmers between an eerie, grief-triggering moan in Brecht Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” and a dictating triumphus shout in Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”. Her untrained androgynous timbre and unusually low range are an anomaly among female singers, and she eschews the vocal acrobatics, riffs, and runs expected of the African-American voice. Nina molds each song to suit her individual needs, as Daphne Brooks says in her book, Grace, “suddenly going belly deep or off key because the melody can’t carry all of her feeling.” Her voice vibrates like a “motor running,” moving with a “rich, deep thrumming under the cracked surface.” It can be unpleasant at times, but it’s these “cracks” that allow the raw vulnerability within her voice to shine through.

“What should a black female artist sound like? This is the aesthetic conundrum an artist as complex as Nina Simone spent the bulk of her career pondering”

“Simone made art about wanting to live like a free person,” writes Dan Marsh. Inside she was trapped and tormented by a bipolar disorder that led to her infamous savage and erratic behavior. In 1985, she fired a gun at her A&R over a royalty mix-up, and in 1995 shot her neighbor’s son after his laughing disturbed her. Nina bitterly struggled with the blackness of her skin, mocking her daughter’s lighter complexion and confessing, “I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise.” She fled this despair by getting “caught up, enraged, energized, and mobilized by the Civil Rights Movement,” as Kathy Dobie notes, changing her self-loathing into profound political anthems. Hearing of the Alabama church bombing that killed four black schoolgirls, Nina’s first reaction was to build a gun. “I had it in mind to go out and kill someone,” she later explained. Instead she penned “Mississippi Goddam” in under an hour, inserting her rage into the recording, her voice steeped in irony as the bouncy upbeat instrumentation is juxtaposed starkly against the bleak lyrics: “But this whole country is full of lies / You’re all gonna die and die like flies.”

Nina grew notorious for her ‘hostile’ behavior, expecting concert hall deportment even in a nightclub. If her audience refused, she was known to shout and storm off stage, throw tantrums, or sit in silence until they obliged. Yet Nina’s shows were still spellbinding, and even if she despised the crowd, she could channel her anger into an impromptu personalized jam. Her 1976 performance at Montreux Jazz Festival is emotional to the core. She repeatedly pauses mid-song, questioning her audience and demanding participation before breaking into a fugue. Over the ten-minute song her voice progresses from brittle loneliness to an angry howl. The piano plays powerful classical crescendos, improvised jazz chords, and whimsical melodies until she begins violently striking each key with force and determination. No matter how drained and disillusioned her mood or doomed her marriage, she could harness her fury into a dexterous performance. She never held back, choosing “homeliness over elegance; the sound of emotions made plain, rather than restrained,” writes Dobie.

“No matter how drained and disillusioned her mood or doomed her marriage, she could harness her fury into a dexterous performance”

Like her sonic radicalism, this choice alienated Simone from her contemporaries as she wove each personal belief, experience, and disturbance into her art, noting in her biography, “If I’m singing a song, it’s crucial that the audience feel the way I feel. They have to understand the injustice I am trying to name.”  The result was an individualistic, eccentric woman whose character couldn’t be separated from her craft. To Nina, her blackness was inescapable. So it’s terrifying to think that Simone herself would probably not be considered for a biopic about her own life. Her society branded defects – a wide nose, a dark skin, and nappy hair – are far from Hollywood’s standard of beauty. Yet she inspiringly transformed her personal struggle with blackness into a badge to be proud of.  Whether it was through her genre bending music or profound activism, she showed all that we should strive to break the rules. Rather than let herself be defined by her trauma, she triumphed by transforming it into a music that is both liberating and soul-wrenching.