2013, Goddam: A Birthday Card for Nina Simone

By Devon Maloney

When Nina Simone died a decade ago, she was 70 years old and irrevocably disappointed in us. Voluntarily ex-patriated to the south of France, she had sacrificed the better years of her life for her art, an art that she honed more expertly and intentionally than practically anyone in her class, an art she wielded to stunning effect during one of the most volatile American social revolutions of the 20th century. But in the end, all the North Carolina pianist saw in her homeland was a country that refused to listen—and her disappointment in her would-be rebel successors couldn't have been more explicit.

"I don't like rap music at all," she told Interview magazine in 1997, six years prior to her death, when asked about contemporary music. "I don't think it's music…Even though they are protesting against what we have all protested against—racism in this country—[rappers] have ruined music as far as I'm concerned. [The message is getting through,] but I don't know what that message is anymore."

This generation had been taught nothing about what the Civil Rights Movement had done for them, she said. Spike Lee could only do so much to inspire people. Lauryn Hill should've just stuck to covering one of her songs instead of simply evoking her name. The criticism continued at length.

"I don't think they can win," she lamented. "There aren't any leaders, honey. I think people are banging their heads against a stone wall… I believed at one time it was possible to solve the race problem… but I don't believe that anymore."

If that is how she felt in 1997, imagining her opinion of musical activism in 2013 is a grim task at best (even when factoring in her likely approval of, at long last, the nation's first black president). But its grimness is perhaps all the more reason we ought to undertake it, on the occasion of what would have been her 80th birthday. The 1997 pessimism of one of the most celebrated musical figures in American history is, tragically, still reinforced today in a lot of ways, if not expressly through "message-less" rap. You can tell because many of her fiercest social condemnations feel just as timeless as her romantic standards in the immense body of her work. Her causes have not become relics of the past; they are as real as today's Racialicious headlines, and for that, we owe it to her memory to continue asking why.

But first, because no birthday tribute could be complete without it, a reminder of what made Dr. Simone truly irreplaceable.

CONTINUE READING