How it would feel to be free

If asked to name some powerful women in music today, you might stare blankly before reverting to “Rupaul?” If asked to name some skanky women in music today, the list might exceed in length the Declaration of Independence. It seems that something has happened, or rather has not happened, to strip the scene to a playground for reality megastars — scantily clad, sexed-up, and manufactured.

The Legacy release of a Nina Simone three-disc/DVD ventures backward in time to showcase the controversial figure who drummed up some of the most influential and emotionally charged music of anyone’s time. The appropriately named collection, To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story, begs to be read like musical literature, telling the tale of a woman who built a sturdy foundation for strong female artists everywhere and makes the listener ask when the rest of the building is supposed to go up.

Nina Simone was born in 1933 as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in the oppressive Great Depression Era. Despite her impoverished beginnings, she impressed her community with her precocious piano playing, and supporters paid her way through Juilliard, where she trained with some of the most presitigious teachers in the nation. After graduation she began singing at nightclubs and bars and starting going by the stage name Nina Simone. She hit it big with the 1968 release of “I Loves You Porgy,” but, unforunately, like most rookie recording artists, she got hosed by the record industry, which began her adversarial relationship with commerical music.

The DVD features a live performance of “Go to Hell,” in which Simone broods heavily through damning lyrics with a wry seriousness that falls like a lead zeppelin over the mixed-race audience. Then, just like that, she hops up from the piano, dancing with levity and igniting the crowd with an undeniable and electric energy that seems to have sprung from nowhere. Likewise, the whole collection is manic in order and nature, frequently ping-ponging between bluesy, bruised ballads such as Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” followed by rhythmic, light songs like “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter.”

Most critiques of Simone’s work applaud this incredible versatility, yet there’s always an underlying tone of confusion or justification. They try to marry her different personas, they abridge her experimental drifts into other genres, and they try to reassure you, “She’s talented. Really. Don’t try to understand her.” Like most women with something to say and a wit of intelligence, it seems of utmost importance that you get a handle on her, lest she get too out of control with her words or her music.

The music industry is so aptly keen at streamlining artists, especially women, that I imagine right now your mind has already wandered to present-day tide-buckers such as Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears. If we were to separate Spears from her lackluster music for a moment, we could see that she is victim to the same kind of treatment that Simone was. She was created to be a wholesome Mouseketeer. Then, with one flash of the beaver, she became a woman who asserted her sexuality, cursed out the paparazzi, and otherwise broke out of clone status. And she is crucified for it. No wonder she shaved her head and went bat-shit.

Just like Britney, Simone got to the point where things felt a little too hairy and she needed to cut a new path. The heightened conditions of racism in the late ’60s, particularly the murder of Medgar Evers, the death of four girls in a church bombing in Alabama, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. left Simone emotionally ravaged and angry. This bitterness was compounded by the record company’s poor treatment of her — like many black artists she was systematically taken advantage of financially. She railed against being pigeonholed as a jazz artist or a protest singer and wanted nothing to do with the marketing-driven record industry that seemed to want to make a product out of her. Throw in some nasty tax-evasion problems and a spotty relationship with her husband-manager, and Simone took this as a cue to leave America for good, living in exile in Switzerland, Barbados, and France, for more than a decade before returning to tour the States in the mid ’80s.

Away from America, Simone seems to have shed her ire and replaced it with an inoffensive musical repertoire that lost some of its victory and danger. “I think if I were over there in America, protest music would be more important,” she was quoted as saying. “But I’m not going.” She retreated not only from the country itself, but from her status as an African-American woman with a platform and a mission. She subtracted most of the statement from her songs and became simply a musician. In that way, they broke her down — and it still happens today.

Within the music industry, it seems, you can either behave yourself and enjoy mainstream success, or take a chance and endure the wrath of God, or at least industry execs. When the Dixie Chicks infamously gaffed “We’re embarrassed that the President is from Texas,” radio stations retaliated by banning their music while even die-hard fans deserted the Chicks to instead put a boot in Iraq’s ass with Toby Keith. Likewise, outspoken musicians such as Lauryn Hill, Ani DiFranco, and Melissa Etheridge are now relegated to the underground after former mainstream popularity.

This doesn’t mean that the natural progression of things doesn’t work. Every now and again, a Nina Simone will surface, shake things up, and then disappear into relative obscurity, having become dejected and cynical or forced from sold-out arenas to political conventions and alternative festivals. Regardless of the direction of Simone’s career, “Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women,” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” have been released and are not going anywhere. They’ve found a place in this new collection, to be enjoyed by new listeners and longtime fans. She influenced a wide array of incredible musicians such as Alicia Keys and Jill Scott, and she gave a voice and a face to intelligent and powerful black women.

Simone inspires not only awe and admiration, but a desire to seek out and advocate musicians of her integrity and strength. If you look carefully, you’ll be surprised to find artists of her caliber mounting a war on the status quo. Just look quickly, because they are soon to be gone. But, like Simone, they’ll always return, and thank God for that.

If, after listening to To Be Free you feel as if you’ve just been in a bar fight, imagine how Simone must have felt. Few can make this kind of penetrating music, and those who do (think Amy Winehouse) have the battle scars to prove it. The collection’s greatest asset is its ability to draw you into the mercurial world of this awe-inspiring icon. If listening on the surface, the songs are technically great and enjoyable in all the ways that music can be. If you dare to delve into the person, into the feelings that grind out the tracks, you might just need some lithium to get you straight again. But every now and again, it’s good to get knocked on your ass.

To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story
Nina Simone
(Sony Legacy)