Music I Like

Music I Like: Nina Simone – “Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free”

Nina Simone, being black.
Nina Simone, being black.

A friend in college first introduced me to Nina Simone. I heard her sing Feelin’ Good on a commercial for a watch or a car or something. I wasn’t fond of her voice at first, but I couldn’t help but be interested. Over the years, I’ve actually grown to love her, even beyond her music. My two favorite songs of hers are My Name Is Peaches and today’s feature, Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free.

The live version from the Montreaux Jazz Festival is my recording of choice of this particular song. It is heavy with spirit. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen someone be so honest. From what I gather from photos of her, quotes from her and the music she made, I get a very candid and forthright impression from her. There are not very many pictures of her smiling that I’ve seen. Upon the discovery of her struggles and behaviors, I felt even more connected to her. Nina Simone was as honest as I can only hope to be. Of all of the songs I’ve heard from her, Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free displays that best.

It’s a straight up cry of the heart. The skill with which she played made the piano seem like an extension of herself. She sang clearly and heavily to convey the freight of not knowing freedom. This performance was a moment to make a space for herself to experience freedom, whether fabricated for four or so minutes of mirage or otherwise. She performed at the highest level, but she knew what was awaiting her when the curtain closed: a cold, hard and binding world (and you knew she knew that). Her on-stage movements were slack and loose, as if moseying in her own living room. Her countenance was impenetrably conversational, even before masses of folks looking for performance. She denied them performance and gave them truth and they still left happy. She was not the typical, swayed-by-the-people artist and it hardly feels right to call her a performer.

She gave and continues to give people herself.

I tried imagining what it felt like for her to be refused acceptance to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, knowing that she deserved to be there. The audition was said to be a success, but not successful enough to combat plagued, racists minds that denied her entry. This stunted her dream of being the first black female classical pianist. She was obviously skilled and talented. Curtis’ prestige would be hardly tainted if she had been a notable alumni, but she wasn’t good* enough to be there?

She played in Philly clubs, anyway, and that served as a launchpad for her illustrious career which spans over 25 years and includes more than 40 albums. In my mind she is a symbol for Black resilience.

Nina Simone, 1965
Nina Simone, 1965

In a 1991 interview in France, she was almost brought to tears about the fact that she wasn’t the first black female classical pianist. By that time, though, she had become a major proponent for social justice through protest music. She had become best friends with Miriam Makeba who was doing the same thing at the same time in South Africa. If you take a closer look at her documented life, you’ll discover her strong convictions being manifested in a lot of interesting ways. I encourage you to take a closer look for yourself and see if you don’t admire her.

Whatever you find will most certainly be genuinely Nina Simone.


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