Nina Simone, later in life, in “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (Photo courtesy of Gerrit de Bruin/Netflix)
Towards the end of What Happened, Miss Simone? sits an interview conducted with Nina in the 1980s in which she states that she doesn’t regret being part of the Civil Rights Movement, which she claims is nonexistent at the time. However, “some of the songs I sang have hurt my career. All the controversial songs, the industry decided to punish me for and they put a boycott on my records. It’s hard for me to incorporate those songs anymore because they are not relevant to the times.”
Scenes like these are the hardest to watch, but without them there would have been no need to make What Happened, Miss Simone?. With the race divide our country is facing right now, it’s become even more clear that Simone’s songs remains relevant to the times.
Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike, Lauryn Hill, Common and John Legend, J. Cole, and just this week in light of the Charleston shootings, Kanye West have served as musical voices in the chapter of the Civil Rights story that’s playing out, violently, right now. Their efforts are not to be diminished, but there’s nothing to rival the sense of activism that permeated Simone’s work and life. As her daughter Lisa notes in the film, political tragedy sustained Simone — a quality that defines ‘Nuff Said, where her rage and sadness over MLK translates into one of her most dynamic live performances ever recorded. And this being Nina Simone, that’s no easy feat.
We need more radical black art to emerge right now — overtly political music that forces the white mainstream to see the world through someone else’s eyes, risk of audience alienation be damned. Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly or Cole’s “Be Free” feel like just the beginning in comparison to the sacrifices Simone made, as evidenced with great detail in What Happened, Miss Simone?.