Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina on Feb. 21, 1933, Nina Simone went from a child prodigy pianist to one of the most impactful jazz/blues/soul/rock artists of the 20th century.
Simone passed away on April 21, 2003. However, her many recordings and intense live performances are still resonating today, which would have been her 90th birthday.
“All I’m trying to do all the time is just open people up, so they can let themselves be open to somebody else,” Simone told filmmaker Peter Rodis in the documentary Nina: An Historical Perspective (see clip above).
I always thought I was shaking people up,” Simone continued. “But now I want to go at it more, I want to go at it coldly. I want to shake people up that when they leave [a performance], I want them to be to pieces.”
She could sing a melancholy blues, captivate a crowd, and take the piano to new places. But for many, the fire she brought to her protest songs during the Civil Rights era are where her music transcended even her own already-impressive career and carved her a singular home in music history.
Below are five songs that shook the world and left a lasting impact.
1 – Mississippi Goddam
If any one song is Simone’s most impactful, this is it. The song is famously Simone’s reaction to the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing that killed four young black girls (and partly blinded a fifth) that same year. Simone reportedly wrote the song in just one hour. When first performed and then released on record in 1964, it was an angry shout directly in the face of the bigotry, hatred, violence, and death that Black Americans were enduring – and had been for centuries. Once “Mississippi Goddam” was out in the world, Simone’s music took a new turn and never looked back.
2 – Four Women
Not as immediately in your face as “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone’s “Four Women” cuts with a more subtle – but still deadly – lyrical edge. The song brings to life four Black women through how they see themselves – or more to the point, how the world sees them, through their physical appearance.
“‘Four Women’ came to me after conversations I had with black women,” Simone is quoted as saying about the song. “It seemed we were all suffering from self-hatred. We hated our complexions, our hair, our bodies. I realized we had been brainwashed into feeling this way about ourselves by some black men and many white people.”
3 – I Put a Spell on You
Simone recorded many songs by other writers over the years, and her version of this Screaming Jay Hawkins classic still stands as a great example of how she can take an already famous song and truly make it her own. The song will leave you shaking.
4 – Revolution
Something of an answer song to the Beatles’ “Revolution,” Simone’s takes a more political stance. “Sing about a revolution/Because I’m talkin’ ’bout a change,” she sings. “It’s more than just air pollution/Well, you know you got to clean your brain.” Simone may have taken a critical point of view toward the Beatles song, but John Lennon apparently liked it.
5 – To Be Young, Gifted and Black
This is easily Simone’s most well-known song, the title coming from a play by Lorraine Hansberry. Written by Simone with lyrics by Weldon Irvine, she debuted the song during the Harlem Festival in 1969 – the same festival that was the basis for the 2021 Oscar-nominated documentary Summer of Soul. Simone’s recording of the song reached the Top 10 of Billboard’s R&B chart and number 76 on the Hot 100.
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