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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

(Soundbite of song, "My Baby Just Cares for Me")

Ms. NINA SIMONE (Musician): (Singing) My baby don't care for shows. My baby don't care for clothes. My baby just cares for me.

NORRIS: Nobody sounds like Nina Simone. Born in North Carolina and trained at Julliard, she became an icon of American music, equally talented as a writer, composer and songwriter. And in the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, she also became a voice of action and anger.

Nadine Cohodas has written a new biography of the singer. It's called "Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone." Her book charts the life of a performer whose music was always an extension and a response to the world around her.

Ms. NADINE COHODAS (Author, "Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone"): I believe she is as important for what she represents as what she left behind, and that is this unapologetic rage at the condition of blacks in America once she embraced the Civil Rights Movement. We speak now of thinking we might be approaching a post-racial era. We talk about crossing the racial divide. Nina had no interest in that. She wanted to confront it.

There were points when she said to her black audience: Listen to me. Do something. Get up. Be active and perhaps, you know, one of the sweeter aspects of that is in 1969 when she writes "To Be Young, Gifted and Black."

(Soundbite of song, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) In the whole world you know, there's a million boys and girls who are young, gifted and black, and that's a fact. You are young, gifted and black.

NORRIS: That song actually was then, became a staple of choirs in largely black schools across the country. I mean, starting at about age six students learned how to sing that song.

Ms. COHODAS: Right, right. And, you know, what's interesting, musically it's not the most complicated song, but that's all right. It was serving a particular purpose.

NORRIS: Even the title itself, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," was a statement of its own.

Ms. COHODAS: Right. And Nina, as with others, it had the ring of autobiography.

NORRIS: You know, when you talk about her activism, she sounds almost a bit strident in the description, but she was very playful at times in trying to bring people along. You hear that in a song like "Backlash."

(Soundbite of song, "Backlash Blues")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) When I try to find a job to earn a little cash, all you got to offer is your mean old white backlash.

NORRIS: The lyrics are very, very angry, but it's almost like a Broadway ballad...

Ms. COHODAS: Yes. But you know why you will hear that playfulness - this is a Langston Hughes poem - and you can't do any better than putting to music words by Langston Hughes.

(Soundbite of song, "Backlash Blues")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Mr. Backlash, hear me now. I'm warning you, yeah, some time, some way, I'm gonna leave you with the blues.

Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

NORRIS: Nina Simone spent much of her life overseas. Why did she leave the United States, and why did she essentially stay away from the United States? She never really came back for good.

Ms. COHODAS: Nina herself said in 1982 when a documentary was made about her life that she didn't feel the United States was her home anymore. And where others might have seen racial progress, she never felt it inside. Added to that was her rock solid belief that she had not gotten her due professionally, both in terms of reputation, but also like so many other artists that she hadn't gotten proper payment for records that were successful. And added to that, she simply wanted nothing more to do with the country. And, in fact, she wrote her oldest brother a note and would refer to the United Snakes of America.

NORRIS: Hmm. So there was a lot of anger.

Ms. COHODAS: Absolutely. I think...

NORRIS: And it sounds like at the record industry, also.

Ms. COHODAS: Oh, very much so, very much so. There are incidents that I recount in the book where you could say maybe she actually is out of control. And at a couple of points, her good friend James Baldwin happens to be in the audience and he comes up on stage and does the only thing you can do. He just puts his arms around her and whispers in her ear, and we don't know what he said, but whatever it was, it worked.

And I think this also touches on another aspect of Nina that I think Nina was not well at certain points. And, in fact, later in her life was on medication that helped avert these wild mood swings and this extraordinary rage that could come out. So when you add that all together, she just felt more comfortable in Europe. But, as we know, she is not the only black musician who felt the same way.

(Soundbite of song, "Nina")

NORRIS: I want to talk to you about Nina Simone's artistry, and when we do, why don't we just listen to one of her songs that I think speaks to something that I think few artists could probably do in quite this way. It's a live performance of the song "Nina."

(Soundbite of song, "Nina")

NORRIS: You hear her singing, almost chanting and it sounds like a whale, that it comes from somewhere deep down inside. What is it that we're hearing here?

Ms. COHODAS: In part, I think she is clearly in the moment and finding where she wants to go with the song.

(Soundbite of song, "Nina")

Ms. COHODAS: This is somebody who started out with a piano, bass and drums as a jazz musician. There is nothing about playing something like "Birdland" in this. And you hear influences from Africa and the Middle East, and it goes to her eclecticism.

(Soundbite of song, "Nina")

NORRIS: Her final appearance in New York in 2002, I want to ask you about that, and where she was at at that point in her life.

Ms. COHODAS: There are actually two performances, and it was so striking to hear George Wean(ph), the great entrepreneur, speak about Nina. And he remembered she got paid a very large amount of money. Carnegie Hall was full, Nina could come out and there were glimpses of the Nina Simone who used to be, and she liked to wave a feather duster. And she sang for 45 minutes. It wasn't great, but everybody was just applauding and was so thrilled to see her. And as he said, she became a goddess of culture.

(Soundbite of song, "Here Comes the Sun")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Here comes the sun, little darling. Here comes the sun, I say, it's all right.

NORRIS: Nadine Cohodas, thank you so much for coming in and talking to us.

Ms. COHODAS: Thank you. I enjoyed it. I appreciate your interest in Nina.

NORRIS: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of song, "Here Comes the Sun")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Here comes the sun, little darling. Here comes the sun, I say, it's all right.

NORRIS: Nadine Cohodas. Her book is called "Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone."

(Soundbite of song, "Here Comes the Sun")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Little darling, it's been a long and lonely winter. Little darling, it feels like years since you've been here. Here comes the sun.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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