West, however, represents something different. While Simone gradually retreated from her position of influence, as did Hill and Chappelle, West claims it aggressively, willingly, and confidently. His stage presence is a dare: You’re never quite sure if he’s in on the joke, because you can’t even be sure there’s a joke at all. His form of defiance is both in conversation and conflict with some of the most significant black voices in contemporary culture.
West’s connection to Simone is easy to point out, at least superficially, thanks to his sampling of her rendition of “Strange Fruit” on his last record’s monster track “Blood On the Leaves.” Both artists have at times used their public performances as a way to assert their personal politics, West most infamously during a Hurricane Katrina telethon when he brazenly went off script to declare that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Simone, who performed at a number of civil-rights events in the late-’60s and incorporated the movement’s message into nearly all of her performances as the decade progressed, eventually left the United States for Africa in 1970, finding the movement stagnant after the death of some of its most prominent leaders. It was there she stayed until she moved to Switzerland six years later. Her alignment with the more radical figures of the era—she was vocal about her skepticism toward non-violence—left many to reassess Simone’s work and cultural influence, and the audience at Montreux would come to serve as a symbol of her strained relationship with the U.S. itself.
In her Montreux performance, Simone comes across as acerbic: She chides the audience as not being “worthy” of hearing a song she wrote after watching a documentary on the late Janis Joplin. At one point, she scolds an audience member for standing up during a song and stops playing to demand they sit down. At some moments, her absent manner comes across as vulnerable—“I’m very tired,” she repeats a number of times—while at others, it seems resentful. But that transparency is key to the show’s energy. The way Simone challenged the audience’s idealized image of her as a performer and their decontextualized love of her songs proved to be an important act of confrontation.
Hill did something similar in her 2002 MTV Unplugged performance, the recording of which she released as her second official LP. Four years earlier, she’d taken home five Grammy awards, including Album of the Year, and at the podium, she appeared shocked and humbled, declaring that her win was “for hip-hop music.” But in the MTV studios, Hill mostly abandons hip-hop arrangements in favor of an acoustic guitar she’s still in the process of learning. In between songs, she inserts personal observations and reflections. During one song, Hill begins to weep in front of her enraptured audience. At the top of the performance, she acknowledges her lower register, explaining that her voice is one of the many things she’s consciously allowed to fall away. “It’s just a voice. I use to get dressed up for y’all, but I don’t do that anymore,” she continues. “I’m sorry, it’s a new day.”