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Nina Simone: The 'Princess Noire'

Nina Simone performs at a concert in 1964.
Hulton Archive/Stringer
Getty Images
Nina Simone performs at a concert in 1964.

The sublime, textured songs of the late Nina Simone made her an icon of American music. She was a Juilliard-trained pianist, a writer and composer. And in the tumult of the civil rights movement, she also became a voice of action and anger.

Author Nadine Cohodas has written a new biography of the singer, called Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. In it, she charts the life of a performer whose music was always an extension of — and a response to — the world around her.

According to Cohodas, Simone felt an unapologetic rage at the treatment of blacks in America. She never had an interest in crossing the racial divide: She wanted to confront it.

She wrote "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" in 1969. Though musically uncomplicated, the song made a statement and became a staple of choirs in black schools across the country.

"In Nina," Cohodas says, "it had the ring of autobiography, because she was young, gifted and black."

Simone spent much of her life overseas. While many in the U.S. at the time saw racial progress, Simone saw it differently — she didn't feel like it was her home anymore. In a note to her brother, Simone even referred to it as the "United Snakes of America." In addition to anger over racial issues, much of Simone's discontent was rooted in disagreements with the record industry. She alleged unfair compensation for her successful albums.

Simone, who died in 2003, gave her last performance at New York City's Carnegie Hall the year before.

"There were glimpses of the Nina Simone who used to be," Cohodas says. "She sang for 45 minutes. It wasn't great, but everybody was so thrilled to see her. She became a goddess of culture."

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Michele Norris