John Shearer/Invision/AP

How Nina Simone Inspired John Legend’s Oscar Speech

In the midst of the interminable Oscars last night, there were a few glimmers of something worth staying up until zero dark thirty to see. Just after performing “Glory,” the anthem of Selma, John Legend and Common took home the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Common spoke first, connecting the struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. to human rights battles that rage on around the world today. And then John Legend started his speech with a quote from Nina Simone:

Nina Simone said, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say: Selma is now.

Legend went on to talk, in detail, about voting rights legislation and mass incarceration in the U.S. It was powerful, but that first line, this short, passing reference to Simone, stuck in my head: why Nina? Why this quote? When and why did she say it in the first place?

The line is from a documentary, To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story. You can hear the quote in its original context here:

So how did Nina Simone, a musician and civil rights activist, see her political beliefs and her music as inextricably linked? And what made John Legend reach for this quote, from this person, when he was speaking about a movie that featured a number of other famously quotable civil rights luminaries? To find out, I spoke with Salamishah Tillet, an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania who is working on a book about Nina Simone. She’s known John for years (they attended Penn together) and she interviewed Common a few years ago for her academic paper, “Strange Sampling: Nina Simone and Her Hip-Hop Children,” for which they discussed his relationship with Simone’s work.

What was your initial reaction to this acceptance speech? Were you surprised to see John invoke Nina Simone?

So on the one hand, I was deeply, pleasantly surprised. But it wasn’t completely out of the air that he conjured up Nina Simone. She is a very important figure for both of them, as an artist who is politically active and uncompromised in her vision for freedom and justice, and who has a unique musical sound.

Can you tell me about the context for this quote that John cited?

That is from a documentary that Peter Rodis made [To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story]. It was filmed in the late 1960s but aired in the early ‘70s. Once she became a politicized artist—once she started using her music in service of the movement, so to speak—she would make quotes similar to that. Various things like, I’m paraphrasing here, “I was trained as a classical pianist, and that was about excellence, and then my music became about freedom.” She began seeing her music that way. That she wanted to only sing love songs, but her people needed her, so she had to show up. So there was a tension in her work, for her, because by writing these songs and performing in these venues, she put her career at great risk in a lot of ways. So it was hard for her, but she also felt that, once that fire was lit in her, there was no other way.

Of all the Civil Rights icons to quote, why her? Considering the context of this Oscar win, I was a little surprised to hear John reference Simone as opposed to Dr. King.

With John, this actual quote was something he was interested in using in an album that he did in 2011 with The Roots called Wake Up!. And he wanted to actually use the clip that you heard [from the documentary] on that album, because that album was really about using songs from the 1960s and 1970s to inspire people, specifically young people, to be politically engaged, in this Obama era. That quote has really meant a lot to him and embodied the kind of activist-artist he sees himself as. So it’s been lingering, haunting, shaping how he sees his work. And the Oscars were the best, most appropriate moment [to use it].

I think what he was saying in the song, and what [Selma] does, is tie these issues of the past and the present quite clearly together. With racial injustice and the protest movement, there’s both a debt the current generation has to the earlier generation, and also there’s this earlier legacy of injustice. So how does music and in particular, art—the film and the song working in tandem—how do they create a sense of challenging what’s going on and being part of the movement, and keep the movement alive, when people aren’t literally protesting in the streets? The song is part of that energy. I feel like the song and the film are building off that energy and keeping it for us.

Just from what we could see on TV, it seemed like the performance of “Glory” was the one that resonated most with people in the theater. We were going on three-plus hours and the show was dragging, and then the camera cuts to these audience reaction shots and everyone is crying.

What is so unique about John and Common for me was not only the depth of their performance, because it exceeded the form of the oscars. I watch the Oscars every year. I see the musical selections. I’m obviously a fan of this song and these artists. But it did seem that the performance was so good and fitting; it was beyond the moment of the Oscars itself.

But then their speech was so unique, not only for the political directness that they both were embracing, but it comes from a model. They didn’t thank the filmmakers and their families, but they used that moment to consciously, clearly be part of a political movement that is theirs. They used that space in a non-egotistical way, to be all about community and country and justice. It’s so rare. And in that way, it’s a throwback to an earlier time. [It’s like when] Marlon Brando didn’t accept his Oscar, and he had a Native American woman, Sachen Littlefeather, do it on his behalf. It’s an older model of political engagement.

It did feel like last night, though, a lot of people were using their acceptance speeches to make political statements. Patricia Arquette called for wage equality in the U.S., Graham Moore, screenwriter of The Imitiation Game, talked about his suicide attempt while accepting this award for a film about a man who was persecuted for homosexuality and died by suspected suicide. The Golden Globes felt like one progressive speech after another. Do you get this sense that John and Common’s speech is part of this larger movement toward using acceptance speeches to raise awareness for social or political issues?

I think people are using these speeches when they can. The Academy’s performance, the Oscars, is so depoliticized in a way. I think you’re right to point out that they’re part of a group of people doing that last night. What I thought was interesting about John Legend and Common was, they didn’t waste any time on anything but the directness of their message. it was very precise. It was all political.

What impressed me was how specific they were willing to be. I think you see a lot of celebrities using those opportunities to speak about injustice in general, vague terms. Like, “We need to end inequality!” The kind of rallying cry that isn’t going to offend anyone because it’s so vague and broad. You don’t usually see someone call out the specific issue, especially something like mass incarceration of people of color in the U.S.

Common’s speech was building on his Golden Globes speech, in a way. Universalizing. That’s the strategy, right? To understand the oppression of African Americans, his message is to show how this is part of a global struggle for human rights. And to recognize people like Michael Brown as human in order to understand them as part of a human rights struggle. That’s part of a strategy: to understand black lives are fundamentally human lives.

And John Legend, it was a kind of preciseness on issues that are disproportionately impacting African Americans in the United States today. So it was two different strategies, and to have them next to each other was really poignant. I think part of what’s poignant about what they’ve done with this song is, it really is a collaboration, I’m really into thinking about collaboration in art as a model for coalition building. So I think it was a really stellar moment, I was so honored to have witnessed it along with other people.

What is it about Nina Simone that makes her the most meaningful person to evoke in this moment, then? What does she signify here?

This is the kind of crux of the project I’m doing, because Nina Simone is so ubiquitous right now in American culture. I think with Nina Simone, the simplest way to say it is her particular aesthetic, where she wasn’t confined to any musical genre. She was jazz, she was pop, she was rock, she was gospel, she was blues: she couldn’t exist in any one category. So there’s this aesthetic practice of not being able to be classified. And there’s the political project of resisting categories of race, gender, sexuality, as a black artist from the 1960s that was political and excellent. That model was ahead of its time in the 1960s. The way she could bring multiple identities and genres together, and be a rebel and virtuouso at the same time, that’s more relevant today when we talk about race and gender and sexuality in conversation with each other, and we understand how all of these things work to open up our definitions of American identity, black identity, women’s identity. She’s just such a uniquely positioned artist from that time period.

What do you mean about Nina as being “ubiquitous in American culture right now”? What do you think about when you think about Simone as a pop culture icon, and is that separated from her identity within the Civil Rights movement?

This year alone, there’s two documentaries on Nina coming out, one from Jeff Lieberman and one from Liz Garbus. She’s the artist Kanye West has sampled the most in his ouvre, so that’s already a pop figure [invoking her]. And people you wouldn’t necessarily associate with her feel compelled to drop her name: Beyoncé, Adele. Lana Del Rey has a tattoo of Nina Simone, Annie Lennox is covering her at the Grammys. So there are all these ways, in addition to the musical culture, that Nina Simone is being referenced and alluded to. People are trying to build off her legacy and claim it for themselves. It’s kind of a cultural phenomenon. It’s almost a zeitgeist: what is it we’re trying to figure out about ourselves thru the figure of Nina Simone? What does American freedom look like, and how does this black, queer woman actually embody that for us? It’s just all the issues that we’re still dealing with. Gay rights, women’s rights, racial justice: in addition to immigration reform, these are the big things we’re wrestling with. And she gets to all of that in her identity and in her political practice.

Nina, thinking about who to compare her to, it’s kind of like Frida, a little like Che, a little like Miles and a lot like Malcolm. That’s why Nina, she’s multitudes and contradictions all in one. And that’s what it is to be American.

So there are so many different paths to connect and identify with her.

It’s the sum of it. It’s a rare moment to have that kind of figure emerge and be recognized as such. Even if you’re not consciously doing it. John isn’t using her, in that moment, to represent women’s rights and LGBT rights. He’s using her as a shorthand to represent a radical artist who always used every moment to make a difference. She’s a shorthand for a very complicated set of identity politics, and to free people from multiple forms of oppression. And she makes good music. I think these artists want to be known as good musicians, too. They want to be known as creative geniuses and innovators.

Did you see this story in The Hollywood Reporter where they interviewed an anonymous Academy voter about her ballot? She brought up Selma, saying “I’ve got to tell you, having the cast show up in T-shirts saying “I can’t breathe” [at their New York premiere] — I thought that stuff was offensive. Did they want to be known for making the best movie of the year or for stirring up shit?” And I think that juxtaposition she makes is so telling: that you can either be an artist or you can be an activist. And then this Nina quote is essentially saying the opposite: an artist has an obligation to be an activist. They aren’t mutually exclusive; they work in concert.

I read that article! She was all into American Sniper. This is the thing: When there are politics related to “marginalized communities” or “minority groups,” that gets read as politics proper. When it’s read as politics in support of the American nation-state and war—it’s interesting that, in her read of American Sniper, which she felt was transformative artistically, she saw that as an apolitical film. So the burden of politics gets placed on films by minority artists or women artists, and it doesn’t get placed on films that are deeply political, maybe conservative, expressing the views of those already in power. It’s not even like I disagreed with all her readings; I just thought she had an unsophisticated understanding of how politics are always operating in art, but if they’re not your value system, you may disregard them as propaganda and not art.

I think the Selma T-shirt thing, though, that was their political choice and position to take as artists. But, and I’ve said this to Ava [DuVernay, the director], herself: that movie is both of the ‘60s but it’s shaped by the ideas and ideologies of today. It’s not a movie from 1965. It’s a movie from 2015. So there’s a lot of things she does in the film, the aesthetic choices as well as who she highlights, why she highlights them. It’s a domestic and black feminist film as much as a civil rights film. There are weird ways in which we think the politics of the moment don’t shape art, and of course they do.

It would be crazy to think any movie isn’t shaped by the culture in which it is made. You’d have to shoot Selma on Mars to completely remove it from the context in which it was filmed.

Like John using that quote, Nina is embracing that idea. The artist is supposed to do that. The artist is supposed to reflect the times.

Do you have any thoughts on what she’s saying here, aside from the one line that John quoted at the Oscars? Here’s the rest of her riff:

Now I think that is true of, of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their choice, but I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white, know this. That’s why they’re so involved in politics. We will shape and mold this country I will not be molded and shaped at all anymore. So if I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.

It’s so beautiful. I think she’s redefining the position of the artist in society, and she’s redefining the responsibility of the American artist to his or her people and his or her country and the world. I think that’s a radical statement unto itself. But what I also think is, she was speaking to the specificity of her moment and clearly telegraphing to the future. I think of Nina Simone as someone who was aligned with a certain period but also was prophetic. Her vision of the role of the artist and what the citizen-artist should look like and be, you get all of that there. She could have been speaking today as much as she could have been speaking back then. That’s part of the enduring legacy of American racism, but something about her genius that was able to just exist in that space of art and politics and see them as, again, reciprocal and necessary for each other to thrive and grow and be good, and that’s how you change society.

David Oyelowo, second from left, and Oprah Winfrey, right, congratulate Common, left, and John Legend, second from right, after they won the award for best original song in a feature film for “Glory” from “Selma" at the Oscars.

David Oyelowo, second from left, and Oprah Winfrey, right, congratulate Common, left, and John Legend, second from right, after they won the award for best original song in a feature film for “Glory” from “Selma” at the Oscars.

CREDIT: John Shearer/Invision/AP

Do you see artists doing that today? It seems like musicians and actors are more loathe than ever to take a stance that might jeopardize their celebrity or their likeability. You get a lot of lip service that’s very late to the party. Like, Beyoncé is a feminist now, and Taylor Swift calls herself a feminist now, but that took years; popular opinion had already built up around those issues. It wasn’t a risky opinion to express.

I think the vast majority of mainstream artists shirk that responsibility. Most people at the Oscars last night did not make political speeches. But at the same time, they’re making political movies, whether it’s radical or conservative politics, they are doing that. The movie industry is a highly contested space around race and gender; it’s a deeply politicized space.

There’s a host of reasons why artists don’t do this: it’s not financially lucrative, you’re not well-liked. There’s a number of disinicentives for artist to be political. You don’t have to do it, because you’re more valued and rewarded for not doing it. I think Nina paid a cost. For an artist like John Legend or Common, we see them in the process of navigating what they’re willing to do and what costs they’re willing to pay.

They are in this semi-protected space, it seems, by being associated with the movie. So they can talk about systemic racism and inequality and mass incarceration within the framework of talking about the song and Selma, and no one will necessarily demand that they carry on this conversation in other arenas.

I do think Common and John are these artists who have been doing this for a while. Common’s repitoire is politically conscious music. And Kanye West signed John, and he’s a controversial artist who has talked about these issues, like during Katrina. [During A Concert for Hurricane Relief, a live benefit concert broadcast in 2005, West deviated from the script to say that then-President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.]

And he was sort of publicly punished for that. Bush called it the lowest moment of his presidency.

That’s the cost. In its most extreme way, that’s the cost of speaking out. When people do speak out, they’re thinking about that. Our generation is thinking about that, trying to navigate that, it’s complicated. And if you want to be popular and famous and sell concert tickets, how do you nvagitate that? How do you navigate capitalism and radical politics? And I think Nina Simone chose radical politics, and I think it’s interesting that she’s popular now.

Nina Simone is shown in London on Dec. 5, 1968.

Nina Simone is shown in London on Dec. 5, 1968.

CREDIT: AP

Thinking about everything you’ve said about her, it makes sense that she’s this touchstone for so many artists today. Because she did choose radical politics, and there isn’t really a question of what her values were, or if she would do something just for the sake of being popular even if it didn’t feel right to her, artistically or ethically. The appeal is so clear, especially for a pop star today who will always be accused of being “inauthentic,” there’s nothing inauthentic about Simone. She’s an unimpeachable choice.

There was this whole thing in the ‘90s when people were really critical of Spike Lee capitalizing on Malcolm X, that Lee was compromising Malcolm’s radical edginess. But you can never divest Malcolm of his political nuance, even at the moment that he becomes popular. In the way that Che Guevara’s iconography survives: you can feel you’re cool but you don’t have to know the history of his organizing. Nina is more similar to Malcolm, Like Lana Del Rey has this tattoo of Nina, and you can make the artistic argument for that, but there’s still something about Nina that resists— I think it’s about the way she intersects race and gender and sexuality. As a dark-skinned woman who grew up in the segregated south, you can’t really divest her or dilute her of what she represents, even at the moment of popularity.

This use of Nina as a pop culture icon reminds me of the celebrities, like Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn, who are always floating around Pinterest and Instagram, associated with all these inspirational or clever quotes, only half of which they probably actually said. It’s so strange to watch what their iconography has become. But Simone’s doesn’t seem to have lost focus, if that makes sense. She still stands for what she always stood for.

Part of it is, when you see Nina on Pinterest, it’s simply the way she looks. You don’t even have to know what she says. We don’t see women that look like that in popular music today, and we didn’t even see it back then. She was such an outlier in her aesthetic. It’s like the Viola Davis New York Times controversy: there’s a heirarchy of beauty in the United States, and women that look like Nina Simone or Viola Davis, as beautiful as they are, they’re devalued because they’re further and further from the ideal of whiteness. So all of Nina together: she’s a symbol and a spokesperson for radical political ideas, and that’s all there with her.

Is it just harder for an artist today to be as popular and as politically outspoken as Nina was? Is everyone too PR-savvy and micromanged?

There wasn’t this incessant desire in Nina’s time to report what [celebrities] were saying and rip it apart. But there were desires to kill a social movement. Killing a social movement is worse than shaming someone, in my mind! But I can see why it’s harder for someone like Beyoncé to maintain that.

Someone like Nina Simone, something I was talking about with John, is that she was friends with and having really rigorous political conversations with people like James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes. People like Odetta, the African American folk singer. Those are the people, when she was in Greenwich Villiage, that was the world she was in, in an intimate way. And I think that changes you. you get to make mistakes and your’e held accountable. Nina did this amazing Carnegie Hall performance—it was one her life goals, especially as someone who grew up as a classical pianist—and she’s talking to Lorraine Hansberry, and she’s like, “That’s cool, Nina, but you know that Martin is protesting in Birmingham?” [It would be like if] John was like, “I won an Oscar!” and someone said, “That’s cool and all, but you know Eric Garner got killed?” Who is having that conversation? I don’t know who is doing that for Beyoncé.

Were those thought leaders well-known among the average American, or just in more intellectual, engaged circles? Were they pop culture figures at the time?

Not everyone was seeing A Raisin in the Sun or reading Baldwin’s articles and essays and eventually novels. But they were thought leaders in terms of the artistic arm of the Civil Rights Movement, and in places like Selma and Montgomery. So I think some of them were famous and some of them weren’t famous. And I think that’s what the movement looks like. I think what you find though is as movements continue to develop, there’s accountability. Artists are either going to rise to the occasion or fall back.

One of the things that’s interesting about Selma, that [DuVernay] didn’t have the opportunity to put in the film, is before they get to the courthouse, Harry Belafonte had a concert of all these artists. It’s the craziest space, in this schoolyard, and it’s wet, and he brings in Sammy Davis Jr. and all of these political artists, like Peter, Paul and Mary. And Nina was supposed to perform for three days in New York City, and she cancels all her shows and takes a crazy flight there, almost risking her life, but she gets there. And Martin asked Harry Belafonte to do that to reinvigorate all these marchers. It was a crowd of 30,000 people. And this is the role of art. This is how Henry was able to galvanize other artists. It was to further the movement and it was part of the movement.

It was the “Stars For Freedom Rally.” And Nina is a hit, she sings “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” and “Mississippi Goddam,” and her songs were the most apropos because they were the most explicit. “I Wish I knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” is the last song on Wake Up!. And I think of “Glory” as John and Common’s response to that song. When you hear the song, “I Wish I Knew,” it’s all about conditional space. It’s something you long for on the horizion. And “Glory” encapsulates that as well, that we haven’t won this yet. It’s a battle hymn. We can fight for this and hopefully get it. If anything, it’s the musical expression of what it means to be black in America, it’s always something not quite achieved, freedom. It’s always on the horizon but worth fighting for. And I think that’s the way Nina Simone’s legacy directly shaped the song “Glory.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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