You Al Capone, I’m Nina Simone

Alison Powell
Interview, January 1997

The American Soul of Nina Simone 

What defines a legend often depends less on the breadth of the ouevre or the length of the discography and more on the size of the gasp taken when that person's name is mentioned. More than forty years after her first night playing and singing in an Atlantic City, N.J., bar, Nina Simone is, as she has always been, an artist who begs awed tones and reverent sights. 

Her genius for applying the high art of classical piano to popular forms like the blues and jazz could only have bloomed in a country that, as Walt Whitman said, "containes multitudes." But it couldn't contain Simone, who became so incensed by America's social failings that she left, and has lived much of her adult life abroad. The fire of her response to the 1963 killings of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and four black children in a Birmingham, Ala., church the song 'Mississippi Goddam," gives the truest sense of what drives her: a quest for justice. 

Though she is now something of a recluse, in the age of CD Simone is more accessible than ever. Last fall, Rhino Records released Nina Simone: Anthology: The Colpix Years, a two-CD set that collects tracks from the eight albums Simone recorded between 1959 and 1963. And other reissues appear all the time. Plans are also in the works for a tour of selected dates--her first since 1992--early this year. We spoke to Simone recently by telephone at her villa in the South of France, where she has settled after years of wandering. As billed, she was powerfully candid and full of shocking opinions. Less expected, though, was her warmth and congeniality. She invited us ti visit sometime and sample some of her homegrown raspberries: a perfect hostess. 

In your autobiography [I Put a Spell on You, 1991] it is clear that you are a real perfectionist. How hard are you on yourself when you play? 
I demand perfection in what I do and I practice very hard before I give a concert--sometimes three to six hours a day. And I am particular about the seating of the audience--also about how much money they pay--but most of all where they are seated. If I am going to sing something intimate, who am I going to sing it to? 

Your great innovation was to bring classical music to traditional forms like jazz and the blues. Did you feel at the time that you were doing something profound? 
When I was studying, yes, in that there weren't any black concert pianists. My choices were intuitive, and I had the technique to do it. People have heard my music and heard the classic in it, so I have becomed known as a black classical pianist. 

Do you listen to much contemporary music? 
No, I don't like it, and I don't like rap music at all. I don't think it's music. It's just a beat and rapping, and even though they are protesting against what we have all protested against--racism im this country--[rappers] have ruined music as far as I'm concerned. 

Do you think the message of rap is getting through? 
Yes, but I don't know what that message is anymore. 

One argument is that the message is destructive 
Well, I think it is too, and what's more, I don't think they can win. There aren't any leaders, honey. I think people are banging their heads against a stone wall. 

Why do you think black leadership has dissipated, id indeed it has? 
Most of the leaders are dead. 

But why do you not see a new generation of inspiring leaders? 
Because their parents didn't teach them anything about history. If they had, we wouldn't need to give this interview. People would know who Lorraine Hansberry was [the author of the 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun], they would know who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was, they would know who Malcom X was, and [they would] get their inspiration from them. 

Don't you think somebody like [filmmaker] Spike Lee can educate his generation? 
Well I think he could, and I think he has up, up to a point, but then have to be people who come after him. 

Do you think communication would be better if the kind of protest music heard in the '60s was still important? 
Yes, and I think if I were over there in America, protest music would be more important. But I'm not going. 

Why not? Do you think your job is done? 
No, no, my job is not done. I address my songs now to the third world. I don't think you know it, but my song "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" is in Chinese. I am popular all over Asia and Africa and the Middle East, not to speak of South Africa, where I'm trying to go to see Nelson Mandela. 

Now Mandela, ther's a leader young Americans know about-- 
But he's not close enough to inspire them directly. 

Do you see any elements of the early civil rights movement still at work in the States? 
No, all I see is rap music. 

You've moved around quite a lot and have lived in Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean. How do you feel about America these days? 
Don't like it, baby. With all the bombings going on, and the terrorism, I don't like it at all. It frightens me. I like being in the South of France. It is very beautiful and we work very hard to keep it that way. We have a huge garden bearing fruit for the winter: peaches, grapes, strawberries, and raspberries. 

You have been very involved with political causes. Are you still? 
Yes, I'm a real rebel with a cause. 

What is it now? 
It's the same one that it's always been and it has to do with the direct equality of my people around the world. 

Do you think the state of race relations in the U.S. is hopeless? 
I think it's hopeless for the majority of black people. I think the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor. I don't think the black people are going to rise at all; I think most of them are going to die. 

What from? 
From violence and from being poor and trying to survive. I think the rich will eventually have to cave in too because the economic situation around the world is not gonna tolerate the United States being on top forever. 

So, you think greed id the driving force. 
Yes, greed has driven the world crazy. And I think I'm lucky that I have a place over here that I can call home. It's no surprise that Michael Jackson, the man that I adore the most in this world, has disappeared from the United STates. I distinctly remember meeting Michael on a plane many years ago when he was little, and I said to him, "Don't let them change you. You're black and you're beautiful." But of course, ha was influenced by his family and everybody else. And I don't mind if you say this, I think that the person who's responsible for Michael's tragedy is Quincy Jones [who co-produced his albums Thriller and Bad]. You can quote me. 

How is he responsible? 
It was Quincy who married a girl from Sweden [Oolah]. And with Quincy with all them white women, poor little Michael didn't know what to do. Michael needed somebody to emulate, and I think he did everything that Quincy Jones told him to do. That is what I believe. 

Does Quincy Jones know you feel this way? 
No, I don't think he knows. 

Well, it's true that interracial marriage is still controversial-- 
From the beginning, it has been a no-no for a black man to touch a white woman. 

Do you agree with that? 
Yes I do. I do not believe in mixing of the races. You can quote me. I don't believe in it and I never have. I've never changed. I've never changed my hair. I've never changed my color, I have always been proud of myself, and my fans are proud of me for remaining the way I've always been. I married a white man one time, but he was a creep. 

What do you think is gained by keeping the races separated? 
We can get rid of slavery. 

You mean unify and conquer? 
Yes, but I think it may be too late. Slavery has never been abolished from America's way of thinking. 

You don't think blurring the race lines is good for desegregation? 
Desegregation is a joke. 

But what do you think about Michael Jackson's plastic surgery? 
Oh darling, he is becoming the freak of the century! It's unfortunate, because I love him very much. When you write this, will you put that my sympathies are with him? I adore that kid and I have cried many days when I thought he wasn't going to make it. 

You once introduced your song "Mississippi Goddam" by saying it's a show tune for a show that hadn't been written yet. 
And you want to know what I meant. O.K., I'll tell you. "Mississippi Goddam," to me, is a prophetic tune. I believe that America is going to die, die like flies, just like the song says. That's what I believe, lady. 

Will we be killed or commit suicide? 
C'est la même chose! 

You've often been called an angry performer, an angry songwriter-- 
Let me finish what you're trying to say. I believed that at one time it was possible to change the race problem. I believed that it was possible for Martin Luther King to become president, for Jesse Jackson to become president. But I don't believe that anymore. My anger was fire and I was pushing that all that time, but I'm not angry now. I'm philosophical, and I am happy where I am because I can't change the world. I'm getting older and I have no business being out there preaching like I did. 

Have you heard any of these women who have made it O.K. to be angry in pop music? 
No, I heard one girl singing, "You Al Capone, I'm Nina Simone." 

You're paraphrasing Lauryn Hill of the Fugees [in "Ready or Not"]. Did you like it that she used your name? 
Yes, I just wish she had sung one of my songs. 

I don't know if anyone could sing one of your songs. 
Oh my God! Dear child, I've got hundreds of them. 

I simply meant from the vocal standpoint, these songs belong to you. 
But who cares? There's no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were. 

Do you have a lover at the moment? 
No, but I had a very intensive love affair from 1994 to 1995. It was like a volcano, so I don't want that anymore for a while. 

Too much lava? 
Yes, too much lava. 

What do you look for in a man? What does he have to give you? 
I would like a man now who is rich, and who can give me a boat--a sailboat. [AP laughs] I want to own it and let him pay for it. My first love is the sea and water, not music. Music is second 

How old were you when you first saw the sea? 
Twenty-three, I think. I try to swim every damn day I can, and I've learned to scuba dive and snorkel. Listen, how soon are we finished? Dinner is getting ready, and I've had some Harveys Bristol Cream. 

We're nearly done. Is there anything else you'd like to say? 
All I really want to say is I look forward to meeting Nelson Mandela. This may be a dream, but I'll say it anyway: I was supposed to be married last year, and I bought a gown. When I meet Nelson Mandela, I shall put on this gown and have the train of it removed and put aside, and kiss the ground that he walks on and then kiss his feet.