Stylist is running its first ever feminist advent calendar in 2018, with a remarkable woman revealing who her feminist icon is every day until 25 December. Here, Antonia Thomas reveals why Nina Simone is her ultimate feminist icon.
My earliest musical memories were underscored by the distinctive voice of Nina Simone and her amazing skills on the piano. As a young girl I knew nothing about this woman other than that her music stirred me. I loved the emotion in her voice, I wanted to keep listening, and so I did.
She’s not the most obvious feminist icon - mainly she was a civil rights activist, who used her platform to challenge the racial politics of the time. But Germaine Greer put it very well when she said: “Every generation has to discover Nina Simone. She is evidence that female genius is real.”
Nina Simone was clever and outspoken. A black woman who communicated unapologetically through song, imbuing other’s words with such a truth that you couldn’t believe she didn’t write them herself and composing her own so searing that they blew open the racial injustice aboard in 1950s America.
In order to become this incredible songstress, pianist and activist she had to defy all expectations of what a black girl could achieve in segregated North Carolina in the 1930s in an almost superhuman way. Having learnt the piano from the age of three, she went on to study classical piano at the prestigious performing arts school Juilliard in New York, which was an incredible accomplishment for a woman of colour at the time.
But what I most admire about her is that in the face of rejection, she swam against the tide in terms of what was expected of female African American artists and with her androgynous voice, her unique blend of classical music with folk blues, her fiery impassioned performances and her personal version of sex appeal, she created her own brand of musical expression.
Simone died in 2003 and I never got to see her perform - if only I could go back in time - but as a mixed-race artist and a performer myself I listen to her music today and take courage and inspiration.
As an actress, in an industry that can be relentlessly cruel to women in its expectations of image and beauty, I am bolstered by her steadfast refusal to be moulded into a package of accepted feminine artistry. She would get on stage and be wholly herself. She created the work that she wanted to create. No one could tell her what, as a woman, as a black woman, was acceptable for her to do or say or sing.
Nina Simone had her own design for living, which she told through music. It is the reason she remains to be one of the most celebrated performers of her generation and it is reason she is my feminist icon.
Antonia Thomas can be seen in The Good Doctor, which airs on Tuesdays at 9pm on Sky Witness and NOW TV.
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