She may not possess the technical ability of Whitney or the gospel power of Aretha. But no one is better at using their voice to reach into the depths of your spirit like Nina.
The first time I put on a Nina Simone CD, I was 23 years young. I was emotionally immature, but as an aspiring music journalist, I was working my way through Black music history and curious to dig into this singer I had been hearing about. Of course, I knew who Nina Simone was, but at that point, I had never put on her music and sat down and really zoned into what she was all about. I pressed play and sat on the bed to listen intently. I no longer recall what song came on first, but her voice was heavy and haunting, and it suggested a depth of emotion that, frankly, I was not ready for. I didn’t make it past the first chorus.
I pressed stop and put it back in my tall pile of CDs. I was scared of the emotions she was making me feel. I wasn’t mature enough to handle Nina then. About a year later, after I’d had my heart broken, gotten fired, ended up in an emergency room, traveled to Jamaica—I had lived a little—I went back and tried Nina again. This time, I was ready and my musical relationship with the genius Nina Simone began. She is deep, she is powerful, she is honest, she is Black as hell. In my mind, Nina Simone is the greatest singer in the history of Black popular music.
I recognize that this may seem controversial to some of you. Nina does not have the technical ability of Whitney Houston, who’s like a vocal gymnast. She does not have the gospel power of Aretha Franklin. She does not have the seductive and soulful smoothness of Marvin Gaye or Donny Hathaway. All of those people have greater technical capabilities than Nina and perhaps better-sounding voices, but to me, the ultimate point of art, any art, is how the artist makes us feel. One artist may have more technical ability, but the point is to evoke deep emotions from the audience. To me, no one is better at using their voice to reach into the depths of your spirit and give you all the feels like Nina Simone.
I love her phrasing. I love her tempo. I love the sound of her voice, which gives me a sense of an underdog, of someone who’s been underestimated and doubted. Someone who’s unvarnished. But my God, someone who can make you feel. Singers talk about selling a song by which they mean conveying the message of the song through their voice. No one makes you feel the song more deeply than Nina.
When I think about love songs like “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” where she takes a delicate approach, or “I Put a Spell on You,” where she sings with a bewitching force, or “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” where she employs a haunting restraint, I can really feel the strength of the love she’s talking about. I can feel her yearning for it or her feminine ability to bewitch a lover. She is very much like an actor in that her entire approach to each song is different so that she can find the best way of communicating a feeling to you.
But more than love songs, the career of Nina Simone is marked by her dogged commitment to singing about Black liberation. In “Feeling Good” and “I Wish I Knew What It Means To Be Free” and “Mississippi Goddam,” she’s like a Black nationalist freedom fighter from the stage. Songs like these and others damaged her career—she lost bookings and her records lost popularity. But she pressed on, refusing to back down. She cared so much about her people and our struggle that was willing to risk sacrificing her career.
In 2002, the year before she died, I saw Nina perform at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. By then she was over it all. She seemed bitter and combative and unwilling to placate the audience. She had had enough. I was disappointed. I wanted to hear her genius, but that night, she was living her truth, and that’s why we loved her throughout her career. She was real. She gave us exactly what she really felt. There was no artifice, no pretending that everything was alright. But even when she was mad at the world and singing about longing for justice for Black people and making politicized art, she still made toweringly great art.
You don’t have to know anything about the civil rights movement to love “Feeling Good” or “I Wish I Knew What It Means To Be Free” or anything Nina ever did. Her voice—both the sound that came from her throat and the world she created with her music—is timeless. I could never tire of listening to her. She’s the greatest singer of all time.