Ledisi Pays It Forward, Inspired By Nina Simone’s Legacy

The multi-talented artist shares how her life was impacted by Nina Simone's music.

Nina Simone is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of artist. That’s an artist who becomes so influential that their works influence other artists and spawn creations that continue their legacy several generations later. Nina Simone, a prodigy, daughter of the American south, and descendent of slaves dared to speak up about the isms that plague us. Her music was often banned, and she was often criticized for her outspoken views about Civil Rights, and her love of Black People. She boldly navigated life through her artistry on her own terms and became a beacon for future dreamers.

Enter Ledisi.

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Ledisi was raised in a musical household and grew up surrounded by the sounds of jazz, gospel, R&B, and funk music.

Her musically-inclined parents inspired her to start singing in church and community choruses at a young age. Her mother served as Ledisi's first vocal teacher, instructing her in the basics of singing and enabling her to find her own voice. In addition, her father had a significant impact on her development by exposing her to jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina.

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The Grammy Award-winning singer, actress, and teacher remembers vividly how Nina Simone came into her life.

“My mom would sing her music but I didn't know it was her. [My mom] would wake us up singing Mississippi Goddamn. What a way to start school” Ledisi tells BET. “I later found out it was Nina Simone.”

Despite her passion for music, Ledisi's family encouraged her to pursue a more conventional career path and she received a degree in radio and television broadcasting. However, music was always her true calling, and she soon returned to her first love, performing at local clubs and writing her own songs.

But it wasn’t until Ledisi was in her 20s that Nina Simone’s music inspired her on a deeper level. One day, while in the throes of depression, and contemplating suicide, “Trouble in Mind” came on the radio and motivated the burgeoning artist to live, and do with her music what Nina Simone had done.

“You know how people say, ‘Your music saved my life?’ That was one of those moments for me with Nina,” explains Ledisi. “And that's when I promised to  honor her through my journey.”

Years later, not only did Ledisi get to sing “Four Women” alongside Marsha Ambrosius, Jill Scott and Kelly Price at Black Girls Rock! 2021, but she also created an album titled Ledisi Sings Nina released that same year. It’s an album of classics like “Four Women,” “Feeling Good,” “Work Song” and more, recorded with an orchestra, that ultimately scored a Grammy nomination in spite of people not seeing Ledisi’s vision.

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“I used my own money out of my savings to get it done after being turned down by several people.  I also put it out on my own label,” says Ledisi.I was already doing R&B and won a Grammy for ‘Anything For You’ and people felt like I should stay in my lane, which they saw as R&B and not jazz.”

Ledisi followed her gut, created the album on her own terms, and it worked out really well.  Aside from the Grammy nod, Ledisi has been able to take her show on the road. She is preparing for some upcoming shows at Carnegie Hall at the end of February, where she will be singing songs from her Nina Simone tribute album with a live orchestra.

“It was scary to take on Nina Somone, but this experience taught me that I can be more than one thing. Being able to sing her music gave me a voice, and now I’m excited to introduce another group of listeners and another era to her music like all of my peers have done so it’s an honor,” says Ledisi. “It opened so many doors in film and television, [and] caught the eyes of different people that I probably wouldn’t have really caught just doing R&B. So, I’m very proud of that legacy.”

The busy creative is also co-headlining a tour with Kem, with Musiq Soulchild as a guest. When she is not on the road or in rehearsals, she is preparing younger musicians to be a force in their crafts at her once-a-week teaching post at Berklee’s Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, as the first artist-in-residence to take on this task.

“I love teaching. If I wasn’t singing and doing music, that’s what I’d be doing, but now I get to do it at the same time,” she says. “And I’m doing R&B, jazz, and my tour around that as well. I can’t complain. I’m happy.

You can see Ledisi at Carnegie Hall in New York City on February 23.

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