Nina Simone is the undisputed queen of Desert Island Discs after castaways chose her songs more than any other artist in 2022.
The American jazz singer and pianist is the first black person to become a year’s most selected artist in eight decades of the BBC’s radio show, analysis of more than 3,200 episodes by the Guardian reveals. Guests from John Legend to Adele to Winnie Byanyima, a UN under-secretary-general, chose her tunes last year, helping Simone, a performer of “reckless, blazing dignity” according to the Guardian’s jazz critic, keep classical music off the top spot.
In a further sign of changing tastes, What a Wonderful World, sung by Louis Armstrong, and Simone’s Feeling Good have joined David Bowie’s Life on Mars? among the most popular song selections since 2010.
While extracts from Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro remain the most popular choices in the show’s 81-year history, rock and pop are now more popular than classical music, with Ghost Town by the Specials and Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits the most popular song choices since 2020.
In 2020, the year of the Black Lives Matter protests, Simone rose to equal top among the most selected artists alongside Bowie, the Rolling Stones and Mozart. The North Carolina-born jazz diva’s subsequent solo dominance comes as black people are increasingly invited to be guests on the show, now hosted by Lauren Laverne. John Goudie, the editor of the show, said: “We’re reflecting the changing shape of society.”
In 2002, about 4% of guests were black, rising to about 18% last year, the Guardian estimates. They included Jay Blades, who presents The Repair Shop, the actor David Harewood and Oti Mabuse, the former Strictly Come Dancing professional dancer.
Goudie said: “The other important thing is the variety of music that [Simone] performed offers castaways a whole range of experiences. There are songs that lift you up and songs that have a real political edge … For some people it’s absolutely all about the voice. Other people, it’s about the message.”
Since the start of 2020, 17 guests have chosen 12 different Simone tracks. They range from her version of Strange Fruit, a song about racist lynchings in the southern US previously recorded by Billie Holiday, which, in Simone’s words, “tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country”, to her takes on Randy Newman’s Baltimore and the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun.
Edward Enninful, the editor-inchief of British Vogue, who was the fashion bible’s first black editor, chose Strange Fruit when he appeared on the show in 2022. He said that when he heard it as a schoolboy in London “it was the first time I realised being black really was difficult”.
In 2020, Bernardine Evaristo, the Booker prize-winning novelist, picked I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free and recalled how she used the song to open shows she staged at community centres in the 1980s with the groundbreaking Theatre of Black Women.
Goudie said the changing tone of the playlists was also down to “the absolutely enormous range of music” people could access through streaming.
Simone joins the Beatles, Queen, Frank Sinatra and Joni Mitchell among the only non-classical artists to top the playlists in any given year, which for decades have been dominated by Handel, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Bach. Simone’s love for the latter, she said in her memoir, “made me dedicate my life to music”.
The Guardian analysis – building on data from the Alan Turing Institute – showed an increase in the diversity of the castaways’ jobs since 2020. Recent years have seen proportionally fewer guests from “traditional” Desert Island Discs professions such as musicians, artists, actors and writers.
They still dominate, but there has been a rise in representation of other walks of life including, in 2023, the climate scientist Prof Corinne Le Quéré and the Iceland supermarket co-founder Sir Malcolm Walker.
Classical music has fallen from more than half of song choices in the 1990s to less than 10% last year. Rock is the largest single category – making up one in five selections. In recent years, there has been more rap, hiphop and grime – with Eminem’s Lose Yourself and Public Enemy’s Fight the Power the most popular tracks.
The actor Alan Bates was the first castaway to choose Simone in 1976, when he selected her jaunty paean to human resilience Ain’t Got No – I Got Life.
Most popular artist selections on Desert Island Discs, by year
2012 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
2014 Johann Sebastian Bach
2016 The Beatles
2017 Queen, The Beatles
2019 Bach, Joni Mitchell, Mozart
2020 Nina Simone, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and Mozart
2022 Nina Simone