Guests of the BBC Radio 4 show picked the revolutionary jazz artist’s songs more than any in 2022, making her the first black person in Desert Island Discs’ 81-year-run to become most selected artist of the year.
The first black person to be the BBC Radio 4 show’s most selected artist of the year since the radio programme began in 1942 is none other than the ‘High Priestess of Soul,’ Nina Simone. According to an analysis by the Guardian, guests on Desert Island Discs picked her songs more than any other artist in 2022, knocking classical music out of its usual no.1 spot.
The American jazz singer and pianist has long been a voice of unity. Her songs traverse the feelings of what it meant to be a black woman in a prejudiced world, to carry the weight of Afro-American history, and to love and lose. Her music is shaped by an often untold history and, in turn, continues to shape history. Perhaps the rise in modern popularity of the late singer’s music correlates with the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, which brought widespread attention to black artists internationally.
Desert Island Discs also more regularly hosts black guests on the show, which is now hosted by Lauren Laverne. Recently, British Vogue’s editor-in-chief Edward Enninful appeared on the radio show and selected Simone’s tunes. Enninful himself made history as the fashion magazine’s first black editor.
Enninful shared that he selected Simone’s ‘Strange Fruit’ because as a young boy in London, “It was the first time I realised being black was really difficult.”
In 2020, Booker prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo chose ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,’ a track she once opened shows with the Theatre of Black Women in the ‘80s.
Other guests of the show, from Adele to the UN under secretary general Winnie Byanyima, also chose Simone’s tracks during their respective appearances last year. Editor of Desert Island Discs John Gouldie relayed, “We’re reflecting the changing shape of society.”
This statement is backed up by a report from the Guardian which estimates that in 2002, only about 4% of the show’s guests were black, while last year that percentage rose to roughly 18%.
But it’s not just about statistics – it’s also about the thematics of Simone’s work, and how it manages to continually touch her listeners even after her life. “There are songs that lift you up and songs that have a real political edge,” says Gouldie of the multi-faceted magic in Simon’s discography.
Classical music has remained victorious throughout the show’s 81-year-run, with Handel and Mozart standing as the most popular choices over the decades. Alongside The Beatles, Queen, Frank Sinatra and Joni Mitchel, Nina Simone is one of few non-classical artists who top the Desert Island Discs playlists throughout its long-standing history.
It’s no forgotten fact, though, that the jazz singer’s musical ambition derived from her love of classical tunes, which she shared in her memoir, “made me devote my life to music.” One can imagine she’d be beaming to know that she has topped Mozart himself and made history, once again.
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