People | Performers

Piano Women: The Artists Who Helped Me Subvert the Music Industry’s Obsession With Categorizing My Body

The day-to-day negotiation I faced as a mixed-race woman made me resist the idea that classifying myself and my body was the only way to get my music heard.

Songs in A Minor,

Songs in A Minor

photo via rufusowliebat/flickr


What shelf do you see yourself on?What sort of outfits do you wear on stage? Can you wear your hair bigger? Why don’t you make more eye contact with the crowd? How about getting out from behind the piano, making it all a little sexier? How is this going to sell?



photo via Classic Film/flickr

So much distance existed between our artistic approaches: I had taken Apple’s seven-minute torch epics, added finger-gymnastic interludes, and was disproportionately proud to have no backing band. To listen to Nina was to be embarrassed by that stance. Whether playing solo or with others, she approached the instrument with a quiet power that was no less commanding for its minimalism. The insights I took from Nina’s work are ones that, even though I’ve left the industry, still shape every phrase I write: Make it feel preordained. Let it breathe.

Instead, I held her at arm’s length, worried that active emulation might cause a new diagnosis: “Nina Simone,” they’d say, and the old cycle would begin again. I feared giving people another tool for eclipsing my work. The fear was unfounded; anyone gunning for profit will never analogize a classic artist as fast as they will a contemporary superstar. But I’d internalized the shape of industry meetings, and denied myself the opportunity to grow.