She Sings To Know She’s Alive

“I sing to know that I’m alive” starts with a calypso-inspired rhythm, Nina’s piano playing trails in. Then her unrefined, jarring voice “I sing just to know that I’m alive, I play just to feel that I’ll survive.” I loved this song from the first time I heard it. The lyrics are comforting and the overall joyfulness of the sound inspires me.

I sing just to know that I’m alive
I play just to feel that I’ll survive
And if there’s a second place
Where (?) just the case
I sing just to know that I’m alive

Soukouss, Yeah soukouss, soukouss, Yeah soukouss, soukouss, Yeah soukouss

Well the mountains they won’t move no they don’t
And the people they won’t dance and they won’t
I sing, I sing, I sing, I sing,
I sing just to know that I’m alive.

Nina Simone (February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003)

Nina Simone (February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003)

I first heard of Nina Simone, aka the Priestess/Empress of Soul, in my high school years. I was bound to come across her music, as my taste were quite “old-school” for a kid. I didn’t actually listen to any of her songs until college. Perhaps I did not actually listen to her songs. Rather, I studied them. I looked for them online, downloaded them and literally studied the notes and lyrics and sentiment to understand why this woman is so hailed as an American music artist. I find her music to be more political, than anything, with songs like “Black is the color of my true love’s hair,” “Ain’t got no life,” “Four women,” “Young, gifted and black,” “Don’t let me be understood.”

Nina Simone is a brave woman. A Maya Angelou on piano, perhaps. Through her music, she made bold observations on race in America’s divided society where poverty is often just a matter of the color of your skin. The Julliard-educated artist won her place in America’s musical legacy. She composed more than 500 songs, recorded more than 60 albums.  Today’s alternative stars like Ledisi, Lauryn Hill and Common often give her praise. For me, “Ain’t got no life,” is probably my favorite. The lyrics are sharp (she’s good at crafting incisive, simply lyrics) and the musical composition is brilliant, edgy, groovy. I’ve heard this song used in pop culture today, television commercials and movie soundtracks.

I often wonder if Nina would have been a hit if she were in the game today. The fact is, her beauty is not of the

ca. 1994 --- Nina Simone

ca. 1994 — Nina Simone

mainstream kind: long hair, “a good nose,” and light skin. Would she have made it big? Much hoopla has been made over the casting of Zoe Saldana to play Nina in an upcoming biopic. Zoe is everything Nina is not when it comes to the physical, however, Zoe appeals to mainstream standards of beauty and movie makers want their movies to sell. That means ignoring all the darker-skinned African-American actresses and celebrities whose beauty Nina stood for (Fantasia Barrino, Nia Long, Adepero Oduye). Mary J. Blige was originally supposed to take the role but…

Nina Simone. “She’s not a pop singer, she’s a diva, a hopeless eccentric … who has so thoroughly co-mingled her odd talent and brooding temperament that she has turned herself into a force of nature, an exotic creature spied so infrequently that every appearance is legendary,” Don Shewey wrote of Nina Simone in the Village Voice in 1993.

1980s, Paris, France --- American Singer Nina Simone --- Image by © Annemiek Veldman/Kipa/Corbis

1980s, Paris, France — American Singer Nina Simone — Image by © Annemiek Veldman/Kipa/Corbis

SINGER NINA SIMONE AT THE CANCER RESEARCH CAMPAIGN'S GALA HALLOWEEN BAL, AT THE HILTON HOTEL, PARK LANE IN LONDON.

SINGER NINA SIMONE AT THE CANCER RESEARCH CAMPAIGN’S GALA HALLOWEEN BAL, AT THE HILTON HOTEL, PARK LANE IN LONDON.

By Chika Oduah

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