While thinking about writing a piece on an African American who inspired me, a few people came to mind: Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker, James Jamerson, and Nina Simone. It was hard for me to choose which one to write about, as they all had strong influences on myself and my music at different points of my life. But while they were all amazingly resilient individuals who rose above the hardships they endured, Nina had the most impact on me as a musician and performer.

Nina Simone, also known as the High Priestess of Soul, was a 20th-century pianist and singer who used elements of jazz, classical, and soul music to express her truth. The first song I heard of hers was “Lilac Wine,” and it was life changing from the moment the opening piano chord was struck.

 

The world immediately ceased its futile spinning with the words “I lost myself on a cool, damp night.” In the next few moments, I would know exactly where such emotions came from and experience a kind of permission to acknowledge such things in myself. This intangible element permeated her music, and came through in all of her performances.

I did finally get to see her perform in Detroit, I think just before she passed away. The moment she walked on stage, people started applauding and eventually it became a standing ovation, something that usually happens after someone has played, not before they’ve even sung a note. And it lasted quite a while. At one point towards the end of the concert, a man demanded to get on stage and tell her something. She gave her consent like the priestess that she was, and when he finally faced her, he announced in a very clear and confident voice, “I just wanted to thank you — because of you, I know how to love my wife.” And the audience exploded into applause.

To command such respect and admiration is rare, and she was a rare and glorious creature. Her music expresses that dark melancholy that exists in every woman’s heart, the anger that rages against an unfair world, and that particular kind of intense grief and heartbreak that only a woman can feel. For these things, I find her an inspiration.