The Artistry of… Nina Simone

When I was young, I used to love looking for the name Nina in Al Hirschfeld drawings in The New York Times. The artist engaged me and so many others in a kind of hide-and-seek game, hiding his daughter’s name, Nina, in the lines of his drawings. Amid my growing grasp and consciousness of what Nina Simone stood for, the irony of looking for the hidden Nina in a drawing morphed in my raised consciousness and it all started to become a kind of ironic, true-life exercise in social concept.

The singer was in no way a hidden figure. The power of her presence, both as an artist and as a person, was staggering. Her words and messages were palpable in a day and age when the message was the rallying cry, and pain, with little gain, far too often accompanied that rallying.

She is said to have once told Martin Luther King Jr. that she was not nonviolent. How to deal with social injustice was the heated topic of many heightened conversations among my parents and their contemporaries, and those elder relatives as they kicked up much dust making their opinions abundantly clear. It was all as pronounced and as audaciously, beautifully symbolized as the afros they sported so proudly. Simone said it loud even when she sang ever so tenderly. The message was fearlessness and it demanded notice and action. Not nonviolent — that’s a double negative I can dig.

The Artistry of… is a weekly series that reflects on the passion and essence of an artist. It airs Wednesday evenings on Dinner Jazz with John Devenish.