Nina Simone’s music long resisted any sort of categorization—she’s claimed in equal measure by jazz, R&B and even folk devotees. Nevertheless, the nominating committee and voters at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year deemed her a worthy addition to their fellowship. Simone was one of six artists inducted on Saturday at Cleveland’s Public Auditorium.
Simone was inducted along with more conventional rock acts Bon Jovi, the Cars, Dire Straits, the Moody Blues and ur-rocker Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
“She would be honored,” actor/musician Samuel Waymon, Simone’s brother, asserted at a backstage press conference. “She never thought anybody really appreciated her music that much. She used to say, ‘They don’t understand me.’”
Waymon, 73, also gave an acceptance speech on Simone’s behalf, following the induction speech delivered by R&B vocalist Mary J. Blige. (Blige was initially slated to portray Simone in the 2016 biopic Nina, but was replaced by Zoe Saldana.)
“Nina was bold, strong, feisty and fearless, and so vulnerable and transparent all at the same time,” Blige said. “Her voice was so distinctive and warm and powerful; I never heard anything like it. She knew who she was and she was confident in what she did and why she did it. … Her songs about injustice, struggle and black life resonate to this day. They’re just as relevant to Ferguson or Baltimore or Mississippi as they were to the civil-rights era.”
His sister, Waymon noted in his acceptance speech, was “a non-conformist. … She never stole from anybody.
“If you’re sampling her music,” he added, “you’d better pay for it. Pay her! Don’t steal from her!”
The induction ceremony also included musical performances from the artists, or in Simone’s case a tribute from two artists under her influence. Accompanied by hip-hop band the Roots, R&B singer Andra Day performed an earth-rattling version of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” Simone’s recording of which was probably the most famous and commercially successful, followed by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” (another song associated with Simone). Day was followed by singer Lauryn Hill, an artist who compares to Simone in her genre-busting (and mercuriality). Hill, dressed ostentatiously in a bright green headwrap, feathered blouse and wide tulle skirt, took on three of the darker songs Simone helped make great: “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”—which erupted into a lengthy and impassioned rap—and “Feeling Good,” which Hill capped with a short but bravura scat solo. It was a tribute as idiosyncratic and free from genre constraints as Simone herself.