There’s a moment in Liz Garbus’s excellent new Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, that perfectly captures the boldness and modernity of the iconic jazz singer and civil-rights activist. “I want to be a rich black bitch,” Nina Simone declares, while the camera pans over a photo of her beaming in the front seat of a giant convertible — the standard pose of someone who is well on her way to realizing her dream of RBB-dom.
Without Simone, would Rihanna ever have been able to assert the same life goals in “Bitch Better Have My Money”? It remains remarkable for a black woman to proudly claim both her blackness and her womanhood, and to tell the world that she not only deserved to get hers but fully intended to do so. The documentary reexamines Simone’s life through never-before-seen photos, interviews, and personal letters, and it’s evident that for all her troubles, she never doubted her talent, never denied her own power, and never shied away from asserting what it meant to be a black woman, even if it made others uncomfortable. “You can’t help it,” she famously said of her work. “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” And from the beginning of her career in the late 1950s to her death in 2003, Simone did just that, through her activism, her music, and also through her enviably fearless style.
From her evening gowns and funky stage costumes to her casual at-home looks, Simone’s style served as an unapologetic visual counterpart to her art: She favored head wraps, dangling jewelry, loud prints, big sunglasses, and pure white evening gowns that made her skin look even darker, as if to emphasize her young, gifted blackness. Nina Simone dressed to celebrate herself — and to remind the world that she was, indeed, a rich black bitch.