The Cultural Impact of Nina Simone’s Four Women

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In 1966, jazz singer-composer-pianist Nina Simone wrote the song “Four Women” in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

The song honored the four young women murdered in the heinous terrorist attack. Her anger at this event fueled her to create art that could express how America viewed Black women as invisible and the acts of violence and racism they faced every day.

Simone was adamant about telling the stories of Black women, and she pushed back on critics that accused her of racial stereotyping in the song.  As a racial activist, Simone defiantly stated, “Black women didn’t know what the hell they wanted because they were defined by things they didn’t control, and until they had the confidence to define themselves they’d be stuck in the same mess forever – that was the point the song made.”  

She created four Black women archetypes to explore: Aunt Sarah, a character that represents African American enslavement, Saffronia, a woman of mixed race, Sweet Thing, a prostitute, and Peaches, a woman embittered and oppressed. Although this song received harsh criticism from some listeners, the cultural impact of the song created many renditions of it by countless artists throughout the decades.

Nina Simone performed “Four Women” at the Antibes Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival in France in 1969. This is the oldest jazz festival in Europe which debuted on July 7, 1960.  This venue was known for embracing African American Jazz artists by giving them a place to perform “freely” despite the racism and civil rights movement happening in America.  

Her magical voice captivated the audience as she sang and told the stories of four Black women. Her head wrap, big earrings, and dramatic eye makeup captured her beauty and style which defied European beauty standards. She was unapologetically Black and represented the culture. 

A powerful rendition of “Four Women” was performed at the 2010 Black Girls Rock! Awards Show. Black Girls Rock! was founded in 2006 by entertainment entrepreneur Beverly Bond to showcase empowering images of women of color. 

In 2010, she partnered with BET to bring the awards show to television.  The song was performed by four contemporary Jazz/R&B singers: Marsha Ambrosius, Ledisi, Kelly Price, and Jill Scott. Each woman soulfully expressed the emotions of the characters by belting out notes that sent shock waves throughout the audience. 

Playwright Christina Ham then wrote the musical, Nina Simone: Four Women, to highlight Simone’s career shift from artist to activist. Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene, the musical imagines a conversation between Simone and three Black women from various backgrounds and experiences. It also includes their fight to overcome racism and the stereotypes that seek to define them.  

Christina Ham felt the production was successful because, after the performances, many Black women told her that they felt represented as one of the four women.