Not long ago, a friend shared on Facebook an old video of Nina Simone talking with an unknown interviewer, where she detailed her aesthetic and her vision for the music she was making:
“I think what you are trying to ask is why am I so insistent upon giving out to them that blackness that black power that black…pushing them to identity with black culture. I think that’s what you’re asking. It’s…I have no choice over it in the first place. To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world. Black people. And I mean that in every sense. Outside and inside, and to me we have a culture that is surpassed by no other civilization but we don’t know anything about it. So again, I think I’ve said this before in this same interview, I think sometime before, my job is to somehow make them curious enough or persuade them by hook or crook to get more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there and just to bring it out. This is what compels me to compel them. And I will do it by whatever means necessary.”
It wasn’t the first time I had seen this clip in my social-media universe. Social media’s power in the 21st century is its uncanny ability to make the invisible ubiquitous. Old photographs celebrating Simone’s style, video clips of her rare performances and interviews, these artifacts trickle through my newsfeeds frequently. Simone has had a digital life and popularity that may not be fully understood by the older generations to whom she originally spoke.
Her cult following offline has continued to gather steam, too, enough to stimulate three new films, including two documentaries, What Happened, Miss Simone, released June 24 in theaters and streaming on Netflix, and The Amazing Nina Simone, slated for release later this year. Both films are at once personal portrait and celebration of her music’s impact on social activism—not just on the civil rights and black power movements of the past, but also in today’s hip-hop infused black politics and culture.
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Before the new social-world order, back in the days of analog, Simone entered my consciousness through my friends. Verve reissued compilations of her more famous works, which we shared with one another enthusiastically. My more talented friends would sing their best covers of “Feeling Good,” as did many professionals. (The British band Muse and Michael Bublé put in a worthy attempt, but Lauryn Hill’s recent performance has effectively shut all contenders out.) Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Be My Husband” sent us hunting for Simone’s original recording.