Throughout his career, Kanye West has repeatedly turned towards Nina Simone’s vast discography as a source for his samples.
But his attraction to her music might rest on more than just an appreciation for her musical genius, as their lives show some remarkable parallels.
Nina Simone basically was Kanye West before there ever was a Kanye.
Sampled on JAY-Z & Kanye West’s “New Day”
The most obvious thing Ye and Nina share might be their attitudes. Kanye is someone people either love or hate, but it’s nigh impossible to not have an opinion of him, something he himself is acutely aware of. "I'm totally honest and I'm totally inappropriate sometimes. For me to say I wasn't a genius—I would just be lying to you and to myself,” Kanye said on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2013.
That lack of humility tends to irk many people, but Ye has no time for false modesty—and neither did Nina. She knew very well she was exceptionally talented and made no qualms about it. “Talent is a burden, not a joy,” she said during a 1978 concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall. “I am not of this planet. I do not come from you. I am not like you.”
Like Kanye, Nina ranted during performances if she felt audiences weren’t sufficiently appreciative, and sometimes left them baffled by uncharacteristically sloppy performances. Her shows were often either legendary or a complete disaster. But audiences gladly kept on taking the risk throughout the many decades her career lasted, because if you caught her on one of those legendary nights, there was absolutely nothing like it.
Both Kanye and Nina comfortably described themselves as geniuses, but at the same time, demanded others also recognized them as such, almost to the point of aggression. That curious combination of extreme confidence with a need for outside confirmation is a character trait they share across generations.
"Do What You Gotta Do"
Sampled on “Famous”
Just like Kanye being ‘just’ a rapper isn’t enough for Kanye, a man who demands at least equal appreciation for his moves into cultural territories like fashion, Nina Simone balked at those calling her a mere jazz singer. No matter what a luminary presence she was in the genre, she often felt ghettoized by it. “Jazz is a white term to define black people,” the classically trained pianist famously said. “My music is black classical music.”
And that outspokenness didn’t stop at musical topics. Simone became an icon of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, to the dismay of Andrew Stroud, her manager, and husband at the time. He had written an entire script for her path to stardom, a plan she completely deviated from by involving herself in the struggle.
But Simone simply couldn’t refrain from commenting on what she saw happening, and how angry it made her, she felt it all the way in her bones. That much became clear when the head of the Urban League asked her to become more active in the struggle for civil rights. Her reply? “Motherfucker, I am civil rights.”
As important as her role in the era’s activism would become, though, she’d always follow her own plan in doing so. “I’m not nonviolent,” were the first words she spoke to Dr. Martin Luther King upon meeting him.
Kanye has a similar propensity to literally go off-script, as evidenced by the moment that nearly had Mike Myers choking on his tongue. “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” surely wasn’t on the teleprompter for the fundraiser on behalf of the victims of Hurricane Katrina that was broadcasting live at the time, but Kanye felt that was a more appropriate and truthful message than what he was supposed to say, so he said it.
It certainly wouldn’t be the last time he unexpectedly shared his opinion on anything.
Sampled on “Blood on the Leaves”
Repurposing previously released material is, of course, a crucial element in the cultural DNA of hip-hop, but Kanye has often raised eyebrows by employing samples in a wide variety of ways. One of the most vehemently criticized instances was his use of Nina Simone’s iteration of the classic "Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching victims in the southern US.
Kanye’s “Blood on the Leaves,” however, doesn’t contain any political commentary, but is a distraught lamentation on a relationship gone awry. “Remember we were so young / When I would hold you / Before the blood on the leaves,” Kanye sings in the song, shifting the meaning of the words sung in the sample to describe a relationship dying.
Simone herself wasn’t a stranger to successfully repurposing other material, either. Like when she recorded her version of “Pirate Jenny.” The song originated as a German show tune in Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Written from the perspective of an overworked and underpaid housekeeper planning to captain an approaching ship of pirates, the record was something like a playful daydream to entertain lower class working people.
But “Pirate Jenny” being set in a “crummy Southern town” and the ship being called “The Black Freighter” suddenly takes on loads of significance through Simone’s intense performance. She practically growls parts of it, and revels in the revenge she ultimately gets to take to such a degree that parents who had their children with them reportedly left the audience when she performed it live. By the sheer magnitude of her performance, she completely changed the meaning and relevance of the song, transforming it into a powerful protest song rivaled only by her own “Mississippi Goddamn.”
Sampled on “Bad News”
It’s not just “Blood on the Leaves” which finds Kanye ruminating on relationships gone sour, the entirety of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy found him working through a nasty and hurtful breakup, with the chilling “Runaway” as its centerpiece. Kanye’s love life has always been a thread throughout his work, and rarely has it reflected happy endings. Even an apparently upbeat song like “Gold Digger” hints at a perpetual mistrust of those romantically interested in him.
Kanye is married now, but a song like “Wolves” on last year’s The Life of Pablo finds him openly worrying about the threats society and its thirst for celebrity gossip might offer to the happiness of his family. “What if Mary was in the club / 'Fore she met Joseph around hella thugs? / Cover Nori in lambswool / We surrounded by the fuckin' wolves,” he says despairingly, repeating the line to add to its significance. This is not the sound of a man living happily ever after.
Simone married Andrew Stroud, a macho police detective and subsequently her manager, early in her career. They had a daughter together named Lisa and seemed to live happily as a family for a few years in Mount Vernon, New York. There was a dark side to their marriage, however, as their disagreements on Simone’s career path and her struggles with her bisexuality put an increasing strain on their marriage. Unbeknownst to those around them, a frustrated Stroud resorted to beating his wife.
She passionately threw herself into different relationships after her divorce, but all of them ended in heartbreak. She desperately longed to be married, though, and even proposed to her Belgian friend and business associate Roger Nupie, who remarked that she knew he was gay. “That’s your problem honey, not mine,” she told him. Despite her efforts, Nina Simone never remarried. One of her last original compositions was a song released in 1993.
It was titled “Marry Me.”
Sampled on Talib Kweli’s “Get By” (Remix) featuring Kanye West, Mos Def, JAY-Z & Busta Rhymes
Kanye’s erratic behavior and paranoid rants are more than well-publicized. He recorded his last two albums at a frantic pace and succumbed after an incomprehensible tirade during one of his shows in his Saint Pablo Tour. The tour was canceled, and it became obvious Kanye was struggling with mental health issues when he was placed under observation in Los Angeles's Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, suffering from exhaustion and sleep deprivation.
Kanye’s been relatively quiet ever since, which is probably for the better, as he should focus on both his physical and mental health before deciding to dive into a studio and work again. Not that the way paparazzi hounded him didn’t give Kanye any reason to be paranoid. And for Simone, who had seen so many of her fellow activists during the civil rights era murdered, this was infinitely more so.
But many of her outbursts just couldn't be explained by a justified sense of paranoia. Nina Simone had been downright abusive towards audiences on more than one occasion, and when she performed in a posh Casablanca penthouse club called the Nina Simone Room, she even attempted to stab an audience member mid-concert. Her guitarist had to physically restrain her to keep Simone from attacking a woman that was trying to leave after suffering her verbal abuse.
When Simone settled in The Netherlands later on, a doctor there prescribed her with a drug called Trilafon. What she was diagnosed with exactly remains unclear, but as long as she steadily took the medicine, her mental health benefited greatly. There were times, however, when she felt stable enough that she decided to stop using the drug.
She was often lonely in her final years, and without anyone around her monitoring her use of the medicine, she sometimes fell back into her disturbing and violent mood swings. It was during one of those episodes that she shot a buckshot rifle at an unruly child living next-door to her in France. Thankfully for all, the kid survived with only a wound in his leg, and the by then elderly Simone got off with a light sentence.
Looking back at both her undeniable musical genius and troubled life, let’s hope Miss Simone’s experience can serve as an example for Mr. West to swerve away from some of the pitfalls she faced. So that he may finally be able to live these words from the first hit record he produced sampling her:
This morning, I woke up / Feelin' brand new, I jumped up / Feelin' my highs and my lows / In my soul and my goals / Just to stop smokin' and stop drinkin’ / I've been thinkin' I've got my reasons / Just to get by, just to get by / Just to get by, just to get by