Nina Simone and the problem with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
The greatest trick of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is in its ability to listen to the cries of those who feel an artist has been slighted, and then cede ground to those artists, one by one. It started when rap stars like Grandmaster Flash and Run D.M.C. began trickling in – something purists saw as a desecration, despite the fact that the Hall had become malleable around the idea of strict genre rules years earlier, when soul and funk acts including James Brown and Sam Cooke were inducted. Everything can be rock & roll so I suppose nothing is truly rock & roll.
Still, it feels like the Hall — which will hold its 33rd induction ceremony this weekend, in Cleveland – roots through its list of eligible bands and artists that have been undeservingly snubbed for years, and puts one or two in, not only as an attempt to satisfy the cries of those who are frustrated with the process, but to win them back for another cycle or two.
This year, the inclusion is for Nina Simone, which doesn’t feel particularly satisfying to me, largely because she would likely balk at the honor. The “Mississippi Goddam” singer — who insisted she made “black classical music” and was often misclassified from the standpoint of genre — was nominated only for the first time this year despite being eligible since 1983. In its description of Simone, the Hall wrote, in part:
Nina Simone’s unapologetic rage and accusatory voice named names and took no prisoners in the African-American struggle for equality in the early 1960s.
Therein lies one of the Hall’s fundamental problems: it is unsure how to reckon with or explain music – particularly black music – which falls outside of its narrow realm of what rock & roll is, or can be. To speak of her voice as accusatory reduces its power and overarching strength. Simone’s rage was, indeed, unapologetic, but it was woven into the fabric of her music — one that was rooted firmly in the ethos of rock & roll — and to separate those things, to label her voice as “accusatory,” is a failure of vision. It welcomes her in, but through the side door.
Simone’s rage was righteous. She had an ability to take songs once heard from other mouths and mold them to her own desires. She once said, “I had spent many years pursuing excellence, because that is what classical music is all about… Now it was dedicated to freedom, and that was far more important.” This idea allowed for her to bend and construct her sound away from the confines of genre, and into a more haunting type of truth-telling. To downplay or slight Simone’s building over her own mythologies seems like an oversight.
But the Hall has much bigger problems than just Simone. We currently have a generation of music fans who aren’t all that interested in the organization itself. With each passing year, it is becoming less a revered symbol of music iconography, and more a tedious and dry institution whose choices don’t always hold weight. Though the 2018 class includes groups that would be considered more in the classic rock & roll mold – Bon Jovi, The Cars, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Dire Straits, the Moody Blues — eventually the Hall will have to include more contemporary artists whose inductions don’t necessarily interest their respective fanbases. Rap fans from the late-‘80s might not be as thrilled with the groups they grew up with being included as Beatles’ fans from the ‘60s were.
The way a musician makes a lasting impact has shifted. With the internet, music history – and the celebration of music as a whole – is archived in ways that are similar to the Hall, but curated by the fan themselves, and not the institution. Old interviews, photos, and performances are now a touch away. The physical archive will always have a place, but the wealth of digital information, without restriction, is such that a fan can build their own Hall of Fame, around whichever artist they wish to have a shrine to. There’s something about that type of equity – untethered to an establishment – that may keep the Hall Of Fame an afterthought, despite its best attempts.
In this way, what makes Simone perfect for the Hall also makes her imperfect for the Hall: she was essential in the building of her own legend, her own sound, and her own ideas of freedom. In this, she became singular, and worthy of any honor placed at her feet. But she was also carving out an impossible path, one only for her and her people to see their way to the end of. Something about that feels massive, but also worth cherishing outside the walls of an establishment that might try to silence Simone’s loudest parts.