Nina Simone in 1969. A new documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” opens on Wednesday. Credit Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive - Getty Images
The feminist writer Germaine Greer once declared: “Every generation has to discover Nina Simone. She is evidence that female genius is real.” This year, that just might happen for good.
Nina Simone is striking posthumous gold as the inspiration for three films and a star-studded tribute album, and she was name-dropped in John Legend’s Oscar acceptance speech for best song. This flurry comes on the heels of a decade-long resurgence: two biographies, a poetry collection, several plays, and the sampling of her signature haunting contralto by hip-hop performers including Jay Z, the Roots and, most relentlessly, Kanye West.
Fifty years after her prominence, Nina Simone is now reaching her peak.
The documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” directed by Liz Garbus (“The Farm: Angola, USA”) and due on Wednesday in New York and two days later on Netflix, opens by exploring Simone’s unorthodox blend of dusky, deep voice, classical music, gospel and jazz piano techniques, and civil rights and black-power musical activism.
Not only did she compose the movement staple “Mississippi Goddam,” but she also broadened the parameters of the great American pop artist. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” Simone asks in the film. “That to me is the definition of an artist.” And in “What Happened,” Simone emerges as a singer whose unflinching pursuit of musical and political freedom establishes her appeal for contemporary activism.
Simone’s androgynous voice, genre-breaking musicianship and political consciousness may have concerned ’60s and ’70s marketing executives and concert promoters, but those are a huge draw for today’s gay, lesbian, black and female artists who want to be taken seriously for their talent, their activism or a combination of both.
“Nina has never stopped being relevant because her activism was so right on, unique, strong, said with such passion and directness,” Ms. Garbus said in an interview at a Brooklyn bakery. “But why has she come back now?” she asked, answering her own question by pointing to how little has changed, citing the protests over the police killings of unarmed African-Americans like Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray.
While Simone’s lyrical indictment of racial segregation and her work on behalf of civil rights organizations connects her to our contemporary moment, those closest to her felt more comfortable telling Simone’s story after her death in 2003. As Ms. Garbus said, “From a filmmaking point of view, the answer for her return is also because of the estate, and people being ready to relinquish some control of her story.”
In this case, it was Simone’s daughter, the singer and actress Lisa Simone Kelly, who shared personal diaries, letters, and audio and video footage with Ms. Garbus and has an executive producer credit on the film. Speaking by phone from her mother’s former home in Carry-le-Rouet, France, Ms. Kelly said: “It has been on my watch that this film was made. And I believe that my mother would have been forgotten if the family, my husband and I, had not taken the right steps to find the right team for her to remembered in American culture on her own terms.”
Simone in New York in 1965. Credit Sam Falk/The New York Times
Ms. Kelly is only partly right. Over the last decade, a steady stream of reissued albums and previously unheard interviews and songs, as well as unseen concert footage have flooded the market. But the estate has enabled and impaired Simone’s revival. There has been a dizzying array of lawsuits over the rights to her master recordings in the last 25 years, a tangled situation that includes a recent Sony Music move to rescind a deal with the estate.
The most high-profile controversy about Simone’s legacy, however, involves Cynthia Mort’s biopic, “Nina,” due later this year. Starring Zoe Saldana in the title role, the film was initially beleaguered by public criticism over the casting, an antagonism further fueled by leaked photos of Ms. Saldana with darkened skin and a nose prosthetic. Eventually, the film’s release was set back even more by Ms. Mort’s own 2014 lawsuit against the production company, which she accused of hijacking the film, as The Hollywood Reporter put it.
Though Ms. Saldana told InStyle magazine that “I didn’t think I was right for the part,” the fallout and online petition calling for a boycott of the film nevertheless revealed a deep cultural investment in both Simone’s politics and aesthetics by a new generation.
The director Gina Prince-Bythewood said in a phone interview that she used Simone as the muse for her lead character, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a biracial British pop sensation, in her 2014 film “Beyond the Lights” because “during her time, Nina was unapologetically black and proud of who she was, and it was reflected in the authenticity of songs like ‘Four Women.’ And this is something that Noni absolutely struggles with because she has been instructed to be a male fantasy.”
But for Ms. Prince-Bythewood, Simone is not simply an alternative to today’s image of an oversexualized or overmanufactured female artist, but the idol most suited for the multilayered identity politics of our social movements. “This moment of ‘Black Lives Matter,’ ” she said, “is a resurgence of racial pride but also a time in which black women are now at the forefront.”
Minnie Driver, left, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “Beyond the Lights.” Credit Suzanne Tenner/Relativity Media, via Associated Press
Like the renaissance of interest in Malcolm X in the early 1990s, Simone’s iconography arises in yet another time of national crisis. However, her biography, as an artist who was proudly black but steadfastly rejected the musical, sexual and social conventions expected of African-American and female artists of her time, renders her a complicated pioneer.
Born Eunice Waymon in 1933, Simone grew up in segregated Tryon, N.C. At 3, she was playing her mother’s favorite gospel hymns for their church choir on piano; by 8, her talents garnered her so much attention that her mother’s white employer offered to pay for her classical music lessons for a year. Determined to become a premier classical pianist, Simone trained at Juilliard for a year, then sought and was denied admission to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia — a heartbreaking rejection that led to a series of reinventions — renaming herself Nina Simone, performing in Atlantic City nightclubs and adopting jazz standards in her repertoire.
She would go on to have her only Top 40 hit with “I Loves You, Porgy” in 1959 off her debut album, “Little Girl Blue.” To further her music career, Simone moved back to New York, where she befriended the activist-writers Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Malcolm X. Influenced by these political friendships and the momentum of the civil rights movement itself, Simone went on to compose “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964 in response to the assassination of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the murder of four African-American girls in a church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., a year earlier. The song was Simone at her best — a sly blend of the show tune, searing racial critique and apocalyptic warning.
Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying “Go slow!”
Simone’s growing political involvement affected both her professional and personal life. Though she was bisexual, her longest romance was her 11-year turbulent marriage to Andy Stroud, a former police officer who managed her career for most of the ’60s. Stroud would use physical and sexual abuse to limit Simone’s activism and friendships, and to control her unpredictable emotional outbursts. Unfortunately, it would take another 20 years for Simone’s “mood swings” to be diagnosed as a bipolar disorder. In the interim, Simone left her marriage and country, becoming an expatriate in Liberia, Switzerland, then France. (In the film, Ms. Kelly says that because her mother became more symptomatic and abusive toward her, she had to move back in with her father.)
She had not only become more militant by aligning songs like “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” with Stokely Carmichael and the black power movement, but also found it increasingly difficult to secure contracts with American record companies. Looking back on this period in her 1991 memoir, “I Put A Spell on You,” Simone recalled, “The protest years were over not just for me but for a whole generation and in music, just like in politics, many of the greatest talents were dead or in exile and their place was filled by third-rate imitators.” She died in 2003 at her home in France.
“Nina Simone, more than anyone else, talked about using her art as a weapon against oppression, and she paid the price of it,” said Ernest Shaw, a visual artist who last year painted a mural featuring Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Simone on the wall of a Baltimore home just two miles from the scene of Freddie Gray’s arrest.
Today Simone’s multitudinous identity captures the mood of young people yearning to bring together our modern movements for racial, gender and sexual equality.
This is a large part of the appeal of the documentary “The Amazing Nina Simone,” by Jeff L. Lieberman, which features more than 50 interviews with Simone’s family, associates and academics (including me), scheduled to be released later this fall.
Nina Simone in 1965 with her daughter, Lisa. Credit Associated Press
Mr. Lieberman said he wanted to explore the relationship between Simone and Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, a former model and the only child of the dancer Katherine Dunham, because “many gay men and lesbians have long connected with Nina Simone because she was this outsider in her many worlds, sometimes sad, sometimes lonely, but always determined, and unrelenting in her fight for freedom.”
Still, the preoccupation with Simone has more to do with her sound than her life story. Those who have covered Simone on recent albums — including Algiers, a Southern gospel and punk band; Xiu Xiu, an experimental post-punk group; and Meshell Ndegeocello, the neo-soul, neo-funk artist — are remarkably different from one another. Their common use of Simone speaks to how her music cuts across race, gender and genre.
But it has been hip-hop, the genre that Simone once said had “ruined music, as far as I’m concerned,” that has kept her musically relevant more than anything else.
Lauryn Hill. Credit Chad Batka for The New York Times
The two hip-hop artists most responsible for Simone’s current ubiquity are Kanye West and Lauryn Hill. Mr. West has rendered Simone hip-hop- and pop-friendly by sampling her in songs like “Bad News,” “New Day” and “Blood on the Leaves.” While he declined to comment on Simone, like her, he fashions himself as a controversial if not misunderstood rebel — a figure who wants to be appreciated as much for his refusal of artistic genres as for his musical virtuosity.
Ms. Hill was one of the first rappers to mention Simone in song — on the Fugees’ “Ready or Not” in 1996 — and she recorded several songs for “Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone,” an album (due July 10) tied to “What Happened, Miss Simone?”
Jayson Jackson, Ms. Hill’s former manager and a producer of Ms. Garbus’s film, conceived “Nina Revisited,” and said that while working on the album, Ms. Hill told him, “I grew up listening to Nina Simone, so I believed everyone spoke as freely as she did.”
Paradoxically, Simone’s comeback also reveals an absence. A majority of pop artists — with the exception of a few like D’Angelo, J. Cole and Killer Mike — have largely been musically silent about police violence in Ferguson, Mo.; New York; and Baltimore.
Nina Simone in about 1968. Credit Getty Images
John Legend, who covered Simone on his own 2010 protest album with the Roots, “Wake Up!,” and recently started Free America, a campaign to end mass incarceration in the United States, attributes this absence to artists unwilling or unable to take positions outside the mainstream. “I don’t think it is career suicide to take on these positions, but I think there is actually a limited number of artists who really want to say something cogent about social issues, so most do not even dive in,” he said in an interview.
He added, “To follow in her footsteps, I think it takes a degree of savvy, consciousness, communication skills, and a vibrant intellectual community that most artists aren’t encouraged to cultivate.”
Today, Simone’s sound and style have made her a compelling example of racial, sexual and gender freedom. As Angela Davis explained in the liner notes for the album, “In representing all of the women who had been silenced, in sharing her incomparable artistic genius, she was the embodiment of the revolutionary democracy we had not yet learned how to imagine.”
Correction: June 28, 2015
An article last Sunday about the influence of the late singer Nina Simone on modern musicians misspelled the name of her hometown. It is Tryon, N.C., not Tyron.
Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, the author of “Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination” and is writing a book on Nina Simone.