Nina and Me: My Complex Relationship with Nina Simone’s Music

Shane Paul Neil
5 min readJan 12, 2021

For a long time, I hated Nina Simone. For me, her voice was a portent of sadness. If, upon coming home from school, I heard her music as I walked up the stairs to our house, I knew what kind of day it had been. My mother would either be locked in her bedroom or defiantly sitting in the living room smoking a cigarette amid the aftermath. My mother almost religiously wore a wig except in those moments. Looking back, I believe it was a part of her baring her soul. It was a statement to my father. Look at the thing you hurt. See the soul that you bruised. Broken glass, flowerpots, and whatever else was unfortunate enough to have been in the way of another argument strewn about her feet.

My father was quiet and steady, with a blue-collar mentality and affable demeanor. Work only mattered so much that home was taken care of and his weekends were free. His highs and lows were never very far from each other. At least, that is how it was most of the time. My father, in hindsight, buried everything. He ate all the stress in his life and often tried to drink and smoke it away. Jimmy was cool as a fan until something popped. Then he ran as hot as an oilless engine. Athletic and wiry I’ve seen him drop men larger than him with one punch. I also saw him nearly break my mother’s nose with a short jab. I can still hear the sound — a sharp click, much like cracking your knuckle.

My mother was, in most ways, the opposite of my father. She actually reminds me quite a bit of Nina. She is extremely bright despite not finishing high school. She was a devourer of books. Everything from Maya Angelou to medical texts. She, for better or worse, also had Nina’s temperamental nature. Anger and joy swirled within her like oil and water. Intertwined but incapable of diluting its counter. There could be no middle. In the middle of it all, I stood — her child, confidante, and punching bag.

I remember the belt rack. It sat beside my mother’s side of the bed. Rickety and made of dark wood, I’m not sure what its original purpose was, but as long as it existed in my life, it held an assortment of twenty or so belts. There were nylon ones, leather ones, and metal ones, thin and thick. There was also an old tan weightlifter’s belt. I often had to go pick a belt in the same manner other children had to pick…

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Shane Paul Neil

Writer (duh) and photographer. Bylines @levelmag @complex @ebony @huffpo shanepaulneil.com