Understanding Nina Simone

There was a request last week to highlight Nina Simone's music so that the laymen (or laywoman) might better understand how her physicality played into her story. I don't think there's a better artifact for getting this across than Simone's performance of "Four Women," which you see below.

I have always thought that in the hands of lesser musician—or in the hands of maybe even anyone else—"Four Women" would not be a very good song. The power isn't so much in the lyrics (although "My mouth like wine" is a great line) as it is in how Simone emotes it. Whatever the sparse descriptions of each women, Simone shines a light upon each of them, varying her emotion as needed.

That light comes from a particular woman, with a particular experience—one that isn't just a "black experience," but a very specific one. Nina Simone's very dark skin was not merely was not incidental to her career, nor was it merely grievance. Her beauty in this particular clip is important, for it isn't a species of beauty that had any place in America when Simone was born. Things are better now, but it's still only recognized intermittently.

More to come throughout the week.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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