Nearly two decades after her death, Nina Simone’s music continues to inspire new audiences. And with a recent string of projects tied to the late singer and civil rights activist, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that Simone is currently trending.
May 1 marked the groundbreaking ceremony at the Nina Simone Archive in her hometown of Tryon. The following month, Montreux Jazz Festival and BMG released Nina Simone: The Montreux Years, a double album of rare and never-before-released live performances.
Meanwhile, the singer’s stunning performance at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is a major highlight in Questlove’s new documentary, Summer of Soul, available on Hulu. And earlier this month, acclaimed jazz/R&B singer Ledisi revisited some of Simone’s catalog with her latest album, Ledisi Sings Nina.
If that’s not enough, in August, Simone’s debut LP, Little Girl Blue, will be reissued on vinyl.
With all this in mind, Xpress recently caught up with local and national musicians, as well as Simone’s younger sister, to discuss the singer’s ongoing influence and legacy.
Honoring a legend
In the mid-’90s, a then-unknown Ledisi Anibade Young was contemplating suicide. “I was a young, 20-something-year-old, and I was depressed and didn’t really want to live anymore,” the Grammy Award-winning artist reveals. But her outlook changed upon hearing Simone’s “Trouble in Mind.”
The song’s wailing piano, Ledisi says, “woke me out of this daze of thinking about not being here on Earth anymore. It woke my whole body up. [It] just said everything I was feeling. And that’s the power of her music for me.”
In her latest album, Ledisi Sings Nina, the singer pays homage to the musician who helped change her life. Featuring U.S. and European orchestras, the project took eight years to complete. And as Simone did when she interpreted the music of others, Ledisi puts her own stamp on the selection of songs from her idol’s catalog, including a reference to former first lady Michelle Obama in her version of “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”
Yet Ledisi endeavors to be respectful. “Anytime I’m rediscovering a song that’s not mine, the goal is to say, ‘Thank you,’” she says. “Always to honor the legend.”
The timelessness of Simone’s music, Ledisi adds, is what makes the late singer so enduring. “What’s great about [Simone] is that she’ll always be for every moment, every mood,” Ledisi says.
Let there be peace
Along with inspiring national acts, Simone continues to captivate Western North Carolina-based artists as well. An informal survey of performing musicians in and around Asheville turned up at least a dozen acts who regularly include songs written or popularized by Simone in their live repertoires.
For multigenre vocalist Peggy Ratusz, Simone’s innate skill at mixing jazz, folk, blues, pop and protest music is what makes her work stand out.
“Nina taught me to be fearless in marrying genres within my songwriting and mixing genres on my set lists,” she says. “Her emotional intensity, her brilliance, her no-nonsense band leading and especially the empowerment she instilled directly to her audiences were unstoppable forces coming together.”
And while Simone’s larger-than-life public persona continues to grow, her sister Frances Waymon Fox says the Nina Simone she knew was a mom and grandmother. “People don’t always think of public figures as individuals, as human beings,” she says. “But they bleed, hurt and cry just like everybody else. And Nina was family-oriented, even though [the public] didn’t see that part of her.”
Fox recalls fond memories of joining her sister on tour. “Nina didn’t cook,” Fox says with a laugh. “When I traveled with her, we would go get some soul food from the grocery stores, and I’d cook wherever we were. She liked collard greens, ham hocks and cornbread.”
Such humble tastes, continues Fox, are in contrast to Simone’s urbane and assertive image. But her life and music synthesized those myriad qualities.
Like Ledisi, Fox believes Simone’s enduring popularity is due in part to the universality of her songs. “Her music is still relevant,” Fox says. “People of all generations can relate to it.”
But greater still, adds Fox, is what she considers the central message of Simone’s music: “Let there be peace.” Fox believes that her sister’s ongoing quest for freedom was at the heart of Simone’s creative urge. “And that’s what people are still crying out for [today],” she says.