October 28, 2021

The Ugly Battle Over Nina Simone’s Life Story

13 min read

A musical icon’s legacy is a fragile factor. Estates of the greats are sometimes left within the fingers of their relations, who diligently work to honor their late beloved one’s reminiscence through posthumous albums, overseeing licensing agreements, or giving their blessing to a biographical movie.

However what occurs when an property isn’t run by those that knew the artist greatest?

It’s a scenario that Broadway actress and author Laiona Michelle and Tony Award-nominated producer Rashad V. Chambers declare they’re presently going through with Nina Simone’s charitable belief, which controls her recordings, and isn’t run by her household however a California fiduciary agency with involvement from Simone’s one-time lawyer, Steven Ames Brown.

Over the previous decade, Michelle has been creating her “ardour challenge,” Little Lady Blue: The Nina Simone Musical, which she wrote and stars in. The one-woman present is split into two acts displayed as live shows, the primary specializing in Simone’s efficiency on the Westbury Music Honest in 1968 and the second in 1976 on the Montreux Jazz Pageant in Switzerland.

Now, as Little Lady Blue is about to return to the stage, this time at Goodspeed Musicals in New Haven, Connecticut, on Wednesday, Aug. 4, it’s bracing for the potential for a authorized battle with Simone’s belief and English producer Barney Wragg, who claims to have secured the life rights and biography rights to provide the enduring musician’s story for a theatrical manufacturing.

It’s all unfathomable and infuriating to Michelle that Simone’s legacy rests within the fingers of “two white males” who’re denying Simone’s personal neighborhood the privilege of telling her story, particularly when the late activist fiercely advocated for the empowerment of Black folks.

“I imagine that Nina Simone would roll over in her grave,” Michelle tells The Day by day Beast. “I by no means at one time have tried to skip any beats, or [tried to get] on the property’s unhealthy aspect. They’ve seen the script—they stopped the dialogue. I say disgrace on them for doing that.”

Courtesy of Laiona Michelle

The Little Lady Blue group believes that Brown is just favoring Wragg’s upcoming manufacturing as a result of he believes there’s extra money to be made there. However Michelle and Chambers argue that the productions can be vastly completely different and demand there’s sufficient room for each musicals to exist, particularly contemplating that Wragg’s manufacturing continues to be in its early developmental phases.

“[Nina] fought all her life for equality,” Michelle explains. “She was saying the identical factor 40-50 years in the past that I’m saying proper now. Make room on the desk, and there’s sufficient room on the desk. Once I say sufficient room on the desk, not only for [Black] actresses and actors to be on the entrance of billboards, however folks like Rashad Chambers—producers and administrators.”

Chambers shares Michelle’s disappointment. “We’re not in a position to management our personal narrative; we’re not in a position to inform our personal tales,” he says.

Courtesy of Rashad V. Chambers

The charitable belief acknowledged the early phases of Little Lady Blue again in 2017 and after reviewing the script, referred to as it a “very affectionate manufacturing” and famous it supposed to approve sure songs, Michelle claims. It acquired clearance on not less than one track the charitable belief needed to log off on, in keeping with a licensing settlement reviewed by The Day by day Beast.

Whereas Little Lady Blue’s run at George Road Playhouse in New Jersey was by all accounts a hit, with strong ticket sales and glowing reviews, one thing shifted with Simone’s property/belief final summer time, in keeping with Michelle and Chambers.

Moved by the protests that have been rocking the nation within the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the calls towards racial injustice, Michelle and Chambers believed it was the fitting time to relaunch the musical, as Simone was a key determine of the civil rights motion.

So, Chambers reached out to Simone’s charitable belief to introduce himself final August, as he wasn’t concerned within the musical’s run from Jan. 28 to Feb. 24, 2019, at George Road Playhouse, and to voice their intentions of reviving Little Lady Blue, together with the potential for bringing the musical to New York Metropolis within the close to future.

His heat pleas have been met by Brown with a convincing no. (Brown didn’t present remark for this story.)

“I obtained a really curt response again,” Chambers recollects, “saying, ‘Sure, I’m accustomed to the piece. You’re three years too late. I’ve already given the unique rights to a producer within the U.Ok., who’s doing larger issues than what you’re doing.’”

After months of back-and-forth with Simone’s charitable belief, and even a last-ditch try and attraction to Wragg, the belief is not going to budge on its stance. It’s allegedly refusing to license three of Simone’s key songs to the musical, which Michelle says are important in telling Simone’s story—“4 Girls,” “Sinnerman,” and “Mississippi Goddam.” (Some notable Simone songs within the musical, reminiscent of “Feeling Good,” are covers and due to this fact don’t should be licensed straight from the belief.)

The Day by day Beast understands that Simone’s belief reviewed a script of Little Lady Blue in 2017, however the belief denies realizing something in regards to the musical’s run at George Road Playhouse, though a licensing settlement indicated that Brown can be paid a 75 p.c charge for the musical’s utilization of Simone’s track “4 Girls.” The charitable belief is alleged to have raised points with the script as a result of it allegedly contained dialogue from copyrighted works owned by Simone’s belief. The belief maintains it by no means acquired a response again from Little Lady Blue over the accounting of the dialogue’s supply materials, so the file was closed.

Chambers claimed that in his dialog with Wragg, the English producer indicated he would probably ship a cease-and-desist letter to Little Lady Blue if the musical moved ahead with its August exhibits.

We’re not in a position to management our personal narrative; we’re not in a position to inform our personal tales.

Wragg, who has labored in executive-level roles for EMI, Common Music, and Actually Helpful, claims that Simone’s charitable belief has given him the unique rights to any “biographical musical or theater manufacturing” in regards to the singer, due to this fact the manufacturing of Little Lady Blue is infringing on his rights, in keeping with Chambers. He claimed he had been working with Simone’s belief for roughly three years on creating a theatrical manufacturing, which goals to make its option to New York within the subsequent few years. Nonetheless, Wragg’s timeline of when he started working with Simone’s belief would have overlapped with Little Lady Blue’s run in 2019—which the charitable belief was conscious of, in keeping with Michelle, who says Brown was invited to attend a present. Wragg allegedly had associates attend a present of Little Lady Blue throughout its run in 2019. In response to firm filings in England, Wragg only incorporated Spell On You Productions in July 2020.

Responding to The Day by day Beast, Wragg confirmed that his firm had been engaged on growth of a Broadway musical “for a while” and had labored with Simone’s belief to safe an settlement in 2019 to rights in Simone’s “autobiography and the related life rights.” Wragg additionally confirmed his firm was working with Simone’s belief to find out if they need to take authorized motion towards the manufacturing.

“Our utmost concern is all the time to make sure that the artists and creatives concerned in any of our productions are consulted with and pretty compensated for his or her works,” Wragg mentioned in an announcement. “We discover it unhappy when any producer elects to develop and produce a present with out the complete consent of the artist or property in query.”

It’s stunning that Simone’s household isn’t technically answerable for her property, with many first learning the news back in June in a tweet from RéAnna Simone Kelly, the daughter of Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly.

Courtesy of Little Lady Blue: The Nina Simone Musical

“We as her household don’t run her property anymore,” the 22-year-old responded to a query on why Simone’s property would make a Twitter account for the singer years after her demise in 2003. “It was taken away from us & given to white folks. Our household identify was DRAGGED within the media. We get NO royalties, nothing.”

Kelly’s son Alexander Simone beforehand informed The Day by day Beast that whereas his mom has some say in Simone’s charitable belief, the household is essentially excluded from any main conversations about initiatives involving Simone.

“It’s very irritating,” he mentioned in June. “Nothing comes again to us. Nothing, no recognition. We type of get ignored. It’s unhappy, however it’s been taking place so lengthy that we’ve discovered to dwell round it. All people else is benefiting off our household identify, and nothing was actually coming to the household.”

“So far as royalties or something that must be accomplished, it doesn’t come again to us,” he added. “It goes on to the property. It’s laborious typically to battle a battle that they tried to make. It shouldn’t be a battle in any respect.”

However a supply near the charitable belief claims that Simone by no means supposed for her household to see the royalties from her music, pointing to the singer’s will from 1993 that said her final want was to create a charity to assist the musical training of Black youngsters in Africa.

When Simone died in April 2003 on the age of 70, Kelly was given her mom’s Los Angeles condominium, per the 1993 will. Other than Simone’s Paris house and two financial presents, the remainder of her property, together with her music rights, would go to the charity.

Kelly was made administrator of the charitable belief in 2004, and that very same 12 months sought to be made administrator of Simone’s property. The courtroom later granted her restricted authority to pursue the “property’s pursuits in France, to deal with tax points, and to symbolize the Property in pending civil litigation,” in keeping with courtroom information.

However in 2013, Kelly was accused of “breaching her fiduciary responsibility” to each the property and belief by allegedly draining as much as $2 million from its coffers and placing cash into her private firm, in keeping with courtroom information reviewed by The Day by day Beast.

That’s when Vice President Kamala Harris, who was California’s Legal professional Common on the time, stepped in. Harris got here down laborious on Kelly, at one level eager to surcharge her almost $6 million, plus greater than $2.5 million in curiosity, a settlement doc states. RéAnna claimed that Harris “bullied” Kelly in court and her mother “almost killed herself from the depression.”

Finally, the events got here to an settlement: Kelly was stripped of her title of administrator of the charitable belief and agreed to relinquish her rights to Simone’s works. She was additionally barred from saying or implying that she had any affiliation together with her mom’s legacy and property, in keeping with courtroom papers.

In July 2018, in keeping with courtroom paperwork reviewed by The Day by day Beast, Simone’s property had almost $3 million in money, 250 shares of Pfizer inventory, and “copyright possession, file, and publishing royalties” from Simone’s music. The property from Simone’s property have been ultimately distributed to the belief, in keeping with courtroom paperwork.

The courtroom appointed San Pasqual Fiduciary Belief Firm as Particular Administrator of Simone’s property after Kelly was pressured to resign, and the agency was made trustee of Simone’s charitable belief.

Chambers and Michelle allege that Brown is definitely the ability behind the belief. They declare that when Little Lady Blue’s group first contacted Simone’s property, it was Brown who they communicated with, and it was Brown who informed them that he can be denying them the licensing in 2020. Brown allegedly went a step additional, saying he was “going to ensure no different writer affiliated with the Nina Simone catalog offers you rights both,” Chambers claims. (The San Pasqual Fiduciary Belief didn’t reply to requests for remark.)

Nina Simone in live performance on the Olympia music corridor in Paris on Oct. 22, 1991.

Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty

It’s baffling to Michelle why Brown received’t budge on letting them license the songs, particularly when she says she acquired the blessing of a few of Simone’s relations. One member mentioned they have been rooting for the musical, and Simone’s grandson Alexander Simone attended a efficiency of Little Lady Blue in 2019, paying a go to to Michelle backstage to specific to her how a lot he beloved the present, Michelle claims.

Plus, Chambers factors out that Wragg’s claims of getting “unique life rights” to a theatrical manufacturing about Simone’s life are void as a result of Simone is a public determine. Legal professional Stephen Rodner, Senior Counsel for Pryor Cashman who focuses on leisure transactions and mental property issues, tells The Day by day Beast that that is correct—nobody can declare having unique life rights over an individual when the subject material offers with details within the public area.

Nonetheless, what does should be given clearance are copyrighted songs, written works, and relying on the size, quotes taken from licensed performances.

How Brown got here to be so carefully concerned with Simone’s property/belief continues to be considerably unclear. He was Simone’s one-time lawyer, representing her in lawsuits within the late Nineteen Eighties and Nineties, as Simone fought again towards file firms to “get well” a few of her work. He claimed that per their agreement, he had a 40 percent ownership interest in any Simone recordings that he helped recover.

Over the years, there’s been a headache of lawsuits between multiple parties, together with Brown, Simone’s late ex-husband Andrew Stroud, and Sony over Simone’s music to find out who precisely owns the rights to it. Lastly, the mud appeared to settle in 2016, with settlements paid and agreements made.

How Brown got here to be so carefully concerned with Simone’s property/belief continues to be considerably unclear.

By 2017, Brown was cited as a “enterprise accomplice to Simone’s property,” in keeping with a Washington Post article about the outrage over Simone’s cowl of “I Want I Knew How It Would Really feel to Be Free” being utilized in a Ford Tremendous Bowl business. The track is taken into account a civil rights anthem and many individuals felt the usage of the track in a business to promote automobiles trivialized the kind of oppression Simone was singing about.

However Brown didn’t see any concern, telling the Publish that Simone “would have beloved the Ford business.” “It hit all of her preferences,” he added. “It was multi-racial, multicultural and multigenerational. Nina loved having her music in commercials and film soundtracks. What she didn’t like have been segregated commercials, and the Ford business was something however.”

Brown’s identify pops up in licensing credit, with some reading in part, “Nina Simone seems courtesy of the Nina Simone Charitable Belief and Steven Ames Brown.” Most just lately, Brown is credited for providing courtesy “archival footage” of Simone in Questlove’s film Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).

Because the opening date for Little Lady Blue approaches, the manufacturing is dashing to drag off its backup plan. The musical has been denied the licensing of “4 Girls,” which was beforehand licensed to Little Lady Blue in 2019 with Brown set to gather 75 p.c of the licensing charge, in keeping with an settlement between George Road Playhouse and EMI Leisure World reviewed by The Day by day Beast. “Sinnerman” and “Mississippi Goddam” stay in limbo.

To get across the licensing roadblock, the musical’s manufacturing has labored to seek out substitute songs that share the essence of the blocked Simone numbers.

And as a substitute for “Mississippi Goddam,” Michelle determined to jot down her personal track, aptly titled “Indignant Black Girl,” impressed not solely by the enduring civil rights anthem however her personal outrage over the obstacles put in the way in which of her “labor of affection,” Little Lady Blue.

“I listened to ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ and all of the subtext that was up underneath that track, contemplating the time through which it was birthed,” Michelle says. “So, it’s me taking that and bringing it to this present and responding to the occasions of at this time, whereas embracing every little thing that Nina Simone skilled in her time. It’s obtained double responsibility taking place. One of many issues within the present we discuss is quieting that voice of the indignant Black lady. What this track does is, it provides us permission to be indignant, as an alternative of all the time making an attempt to justify it.”

“That is our time, it’s time for us to personal our tales and every little thing from the highest to the underside to the underside, and we is not going to be stopped and the way dare you attempt to cease one thing that’s blessed,” she says.

Neither Michelle nor Chambers is deterred by Simone’s property’s refusal and Wragg’s alleged menace of authorized motion. If something, it has solely strengthened their stance that Simone’s story ought to be within the fingers of her household and the Black neighborhood, fairly than outsiders.

“We’re much more empowered to inform the reality of the story,” Chambers says. “That is about Nina and her legacy. Laiona has created a extremely sensible piece of labor that honors [Nina’s] presents in her contributions, not solely to the music canon, but in addition to our nation, as a civil rights activist, as an individual, as a singer-songwriter. Though we’re annoyed, we’re not discouraged.”

“I simply wish to beat this drum as laborious as I can, not only for Little Lady Blue, however I wish to beat this drum for all artists of colour who’re up towards the wall day after day, making an attempt to provide their very own work, making an attempt to jot down their very own materials,” Michelle provides. “Sufficient is sufficient.”

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