Perfect Music Moments in Black History: Nina Simone’s ‘4 Women’

Nina Simone with H. Rap Brown in 1967 (B.J./AP Images)
Nina Simone with H. Rap Brown in 1967 (B.J./AP Images)

For a certain segment out there, I imagine that Jay-Z’s song “The Story of O.J.” introduced them to Nina Simone (born Eunice Waymon). The song samples her famous 1966 song “Four Women,” released on the Wild Is the Wind album. For those who were introduced to her through Jay-Z, I’m both happy and sad: happy because at least they were introduced, and sad because that’s a lot of good Nina Simone music they’ve been missing out on.


“Four Women” is one of the most powerful songs I’ve ever heard in my entire life. From the piano riff that runs through the entire song, which is nothing short of heaven-sent in its perfection, to the buildup at the end to punctuate the emotions and the stories of the four women who are the essence of the song, “Four Women” brilliantly shares the various pain and struggles of black womanhood in America, as faced by these four black figures: Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches.

According to an old Village Voice piece written by Thulani Davis after Simone passed away in 2003:

But it was “Four Women,” an instantly accessible analysis of the damning legacy of slavery, that made iconographic the real women we knew and would become. For African American women it became an anthem affirming our existence, our sanity, and our struggle to survive a culture which regards us as anti-feminine. It acknowledged the loss of childhoods among African American women, our invisibility, exploitation, defiance, and even subtly reminded that in slavery and patriarchy, your name is what they call you.

As a youth, I’d heard Simone’s music through my own discovery of new artists, but it (admittedly) wasn’t until Kanye West sampled “Sinnerman” for Talib Kweli’s “Get By” in 2002 that I did a deep dive into her entire catalog. I spent a week digging into internet crates looking for every album I could find, trying to learn as much as I could.

Her political messaging stood out to me particularly because of the timing and tone of a lot of her music—so much was released in the heat of the civil rights movement—and she didn’t make any bones about her feelings over what was happening in America.

From the Washington Post about the creation of the song “Mississippi Goddam”:

When Nina Simone heard about the bombing death of four young girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, she famously went to her garage and tried to build a zip gun to take out her anger on someone. When her husband suggested that her music would be a more effective weapon, she wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” a politically charged song that declared, “Lord have mercy on this land of mine / we all gonna get it in due time.” When she released the song in 1964, it contained this curious, spoken aside: “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.”


“Four Women” follows along in that political ideology, and from the moment I first heard it, I was drawn into it. It’s almost impossible not to feel something. She electrified us with her storytelling, and influenced other artists—there are plays and works named in honor of the song—by creating offerings that spoke to black womanhood in ways that resonated broadly, but particularly among black women.

Her catalog contains so many gems that one listen through any greatest-hits compilation would whet your appetite for more. From “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to the aforementioned “Sinnerman” and “Mississippi Goddam” to “I Put a Spell on You,” you can find almost anything you’re looking for from Nina Simone. She has over 30 albums for your choosing, but even among the many gems, “Four Women” stands out for its impact and purpose.


It’s why they call her Peaches, the last of the four women:

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is AUNT SARAH
My name is Aunt Sarah

My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me
My name is SAFFRONIA
My name is Saffronia

My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
My mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me
My name is SWEET THING
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown
My manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see
My life has been rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me
My name is PEACHES

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.



Four Women is just as relevant to Black women now as it was when it was written. I loved Nina Simone, still do. Peaches has a special meaning for Simone fans.