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Starting with two sold-out performances with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in 2017, Ledisi has built upon her formidable two-decade R&B/jazz legacy — which includes a 2021 Grammy win for Best Traditional R&B Performance (“Anything for You”) after 12 previous nominations — by honoring and celebrating the music of iconic singer, songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone.
Ledisi Sings Nina, her recent independently released recording, features performances with the Netherlands-based Metropole Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra directed by Adonis Rose. The project is the culmination of her years of producing and touring tribute shows at concert halls and festivals.
In November 2020, PBS debuted Ledisi Live: A Tribute to Nina Simone, a concert showcasing Simone’s dynamic mix of jazz, blues and folk songs from the 1950s and ’60s, taped at Myron’s Jazz Cabaret at the Smith Center in Las Vegas. In 2019, the singer wrote and starred in the autobiographical theatrical production The Legend of Little Girl Blue, which ran three weeks at the Lovelace Studio Theatre at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles. The show, subtitled “A Musical Journey Into the Lives of Nina Simone and Ledisi,” blended classical, jazz and R&B with a powerful narrative about the artists’ cross-generational bond.
On Ledisi Sings Nina, the singer includes the racially charged “Four Women” — which she memorably performed on the 2010 BET special Black Girls Rock! with Jill Scott, Marsha Ambrosius and Kelly Price — but focuses for the most part on Simone’s apolitical songs such as “Feeling Good,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and “Wild Is the Wind.”
“Nina’s intensity as an activist sometimes makes us overlook the other side of her,” says Ledisi. “She was also about love and yearning and the spirit of giving. She was ahead of her time and even after her time. When all of her peers have gone away, her voice, literally and figuratively, endures.
“There’s a sense of pride in being a woman of color and wanting to see America change, just as we want to see it change now,” she adds. “Nina still speaks to our struggles because our policies still need to represent who we are as people. Her deep artistry continues to teach us, and the pictures she painted with her music are a relevant part of our culture that lives forever.”
Considering the impact Simone has had on her life personally and professionally, it’s ironic to note that Ledisi’s initial childhood encounter with her music was a negative one. Growing up, her family lived in a shotgun house in New Orleans, and the singer’s mom would wake her and her siblings in the morning by singing the lines “and everybody knows about Mississippi, Goddamn!” from Simone’s hard-hitting civil rights anthem.
“It was very annoying, and we thought she was making it up,” Ledisi says. “Years later, in my early 20s, I was a young, divorced woman struggling trying to pay the bills, having played a lot of gigs but not sure of my direction in life, musically and otherwise. I didn’t know if I wanted to even sing anymore. One day, Nina came on the radio singing ‘Trouble in Mind’ and I heard the life in there. It woke me up. It made me feel I was not alone. Her voice saved my life and taught me to be fearless. When I told my mom I finally got it, she laughed and said, ‘Now you’re free.’” — Jonathan Widran