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'Princess' Nina Simone: The Voice Of A Movement

Nina Simone's hits include "I Put A Spell On You," "To Be Young, Gifted And Black" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."
Ian Showell
/
Getty Images/Hulton Archive
Nina Simone's hits include "I Put A Spell On You," "To Be Young, Gifted And Black" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."

From lovable to intimidating, singer Nina Simone left people with widely varying impressions of her — but her talent was indisputable.

In Princess Noire, Nadine Cohodas chronicles Simone's life and the passion she expressed in songs that became anthems of the civil rights movement.

Cohodas was inspired by Simone the Woman, and the tumultuous period in American history in which she grew up and became an artist.

"What interested me was the intersection of race and culture," Cohodas tells NPR's Tony Cox.

She says Simone was someone "whose art was so completely fused with her identity. She wasn't simply an African-American woman who sang, but she was someone who wove that into the art that she made."

Simone's racial consciousness was raised at a very young age when she was asked to perform in a piano recital at the library in her hometown of Tryon, N.C. Her parents were seated in the front row, but before she started to play, Cohodas says, "she noticed that one of the white leaders in town came over and quietly asked them could they please move to the back, as was the custom then, because another white couple had come in and should have the front-row seat."

Simone, then known by her given name, Eunice Waymon, objected. Cohodas says she "just looked at that and said absolutely not, and announced publicly that if anyone expected her to play this recital, she had to be looking right at her mother and father, sitting in the front seats."

Later in life, Simone moved in pretty gifted circles and counted Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin as her friends.

"These tremendous talents were her circle of inspiration," she says.

According to Cohodas, it's only when you come to know Simone for her deep engagement in the civil rights movement and as a proud African-American that you can begin to understand her better as an artist.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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