What made Nina Simone's racially self-identified “protest” music so compelling was its blend of passion and craft. You bet songs like “Mississippi Goddamn” and “Old Jim Crow,” were angry: they were written at the height of the Civil Rights tumult, when “Negroes” were being hosed, hung, beaten and blown up, and Simone didn't wait for the scales of justice or the judgment of history (or her own tactful restraint) to tilt in her favor before weighing in. That said, those and most of Simone's other angry political songs are celebratory in nature, glorifying in the idea that it's better to vent than silently acquiesce.
While the singer-pianist was indeed adept at pushing the hot button, the best material here is not angry but anguished. “Four Women” is a theatrical production melodramatically distilled to 4:09, a brilliant piece of work. The palpable sorrow of “Nobody” reminds us that poverty and loneliness are exacerbated by discrimination. And Simone's version of “Strange Fruit” is superior to Billie Holiday's definitive version (a claim I don't make lightly), with its spellbinding, plummeting, extended note at its climax that is harrowing and beautiful all over again each time you hear it.
It's a great idea to include interview snippets with Simone prefacing most every song. Many of the interview questions are inane and Simone's answers are hardly airtight — she's an artist, not a political theorist. But they cinch together material drawn from different sources, and provide another layer of intimacy to help us regard this splendid, still-underrated performer who personified what it means to be uncompromising in one's beliefs.