Nina Simone’s legacy will be introduced to new audiences when the film, Nina, starring Zoe Saldana, is released in theaters next month. The biopic tells the story of Simone’s relationship with her nurse-turned-manager Clifton Henderson and will highlight the later years of Simone’s tumultuous life.
After years of controversy surrounding the studio’s decision to cast Saldana in the role, it was no surprise to see many up in arms about the use of darker makeup and a prosthetic nose to help paint a more accurate physical portrait of the singer. When the trailer was released Wednesday, Saldana tweeted a well-known quote from Nina herself, fending off backlash.
“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me- No Fear… I mean really, no fear,” she tweeted.
As the film continues to catch heat, what Nina Simone left behind cannot be denied. A woman of substance and virtue, the passion felt in her voice, the keys on her piano, and her lyrics have resonated with audiences over generations. Artists such as Faith Evans, Kanye West, and Lauryn Hill have proved as much with samples and covers, which in their own way show the collective pain and joy the artist displayed in her music.
Take a trip down memory lane as we remember the legend’s prolific songs and performances below.
Performing “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” In London
Known as one of the greatest jazz performances of all time, the song was featured on Simone’s 1968 album ‘Nuff Said. Since it was a blend of two tracks from the hit musical Hair, the track opened up a new younger audience for the singer. “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” also resonates with fans today; Ms. Lauryn Hill covered it for the tribute album, Nina Revisited.
The album was released last year following the Netflix Oscar-nominated documentary, What Happened Miss Simone? Hill has also taken on other Nina classics, including “Feeling Good” and “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.”
Nina Reminds Children The Joys Of Being Black With “To Be Young Gifted & Black”
The lyrics of “To Be Young Gifted & Black,” sung to Black children on 123 Sesame Street, have become reminders of Black pride and resilience. The singer made an appearance on the show in 1973, hugging the children while reminding them, “There’s a world waiting for you, This is a quest that’s just begun.” Simone penned the song with composer Weldon Irvine in memoriam of her good friend and legendary playwright Lorraine Hansberry. The title was taken from one of Hansberry’s unpublished works. A New Yorker piece from 2014 revealed Nina also wanted to present a piece that empowers Black children “forever.”
Inspiring Generations At Her 1976 Montreux Show
Simone’s prolific stance on her craft made her a few enemies, but it also showed she didn’t play around with her music. Case in point: her show in Montreux, Switzerland. There was a slight disconnect with the crowd (hence prompts for applause for her cover of Morris Albert’s “Feelings”), but Nina put on one of the most legendary shows of her career. You can watch for yourself in the video above.
Civil Rights Movement Brings Forward “Mississippi Goddam”
As depicted in the documentary, What Happened Miss Simone?, the singer’s civil rights stance came to a head when she released “Mississippi Goddam,” in retaliation for the deaths of Medgar Evers and the Baptist Church Bombing in Alabama that took the lives of four Black children. The song is often known as one of her most politically-charged tracks, alongside “To Be Young Gifted & Black” and “Four Women.” It wasn’t well received by all of her fans, especially White audiences. In 2015, The Atlantic recounted that broken records of “Mississippi Goddam” were returned to her label from radio stations. Other outlets refused to play the song because of the title and the subject matter. Nonetheless, Simone’s choice to speak out on oppression and civil rights earned her the chance to share her passions with other social leaders like Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and James Baldwin.
Nina Remembers Dr. Martin Luther King Three Days After Assassination
“Why (The King of Love Is Dead)” was a song about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King three days after his assassination in 1968. Simone performed the track, written by her bass player Gene Taylor, at a music festival in New York in a vulnerable state, belting, “Folks you’d better stop and think, Everybody knows we’re on the brink, What will happen, now that the King of love is dead?” Speaking with NPR, Simone’s brother Samuel Waymon revealed insight into her emotions: “We learned that song that (same) day,” Waymon said. “We didn’t have a chance to have two or three days of rehearsal. But when you’re feeling compassion and outrage and wanting to express what you know the world is feeling, we did it because that’s what we felt.”