Nabiyah Be Wants You to Remember Disco’s Roots
Nabiyah Be was always destined to be a performer. As the daughter of legendary reggae musician Jimmy Cliff, the Brazilian-born Be grew up touring internationally with her father from the ages of seven to eleven, working as a background singer and dancer. After spending her teenage years in her hometown of Salvador and working as a background vocalist for Brazilian artists such as Daniela Mercury and Carlinhos Brown, Be moved to New York City. She soon found a home on the stages of the Big Apple, earning a B.F.A. in acting from Pace University and appearing in theatrical productions of Hadestown and School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play.
But in 2020, a couple years after making her big-screen debut as the associate of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in Black Panther, Be landed a role that would allow her to combine her acting and singing talents for a global audience. In Daisy Jones & The Six, the highly anticipated Prime Video series adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s best-selling novel about a fictional 1970s rock band, Be plays Simone Jackson, a musician who unwittingly finds herself at the forefront of the underground disco scene.
The show provided an opportunity to flesh out the backstory of Simone, who was largely reduced to being only the successful best friend of Daisy (Riley Keough) in the book. “I would say the biggest change, or the most apparent one, is the fact that she’s queer,” Be, who identifies as queer herself, tells BAZAAR.com. “Adding that quality to her really put more weight into her being a pioneer to the disco movement and how important it was sociopolitically to the queer community.”
When she discovered that her interpretation of Simone was going to depart from the source material, Be, who had read the novel for the first time during the lengthy audition process, says she “left the book on the shelf” and, instead, chose to focus on the script and the conversations she had with executive producers Will Graham and Scott Neustadter. She was given more than 200 pages of disco music research in preparation for the role, and she drew inspiration from the likes of Donna Summer, Diana Ross, and Chaka Khan—as well as lesser-known artists such as Merry Clayton, who is best known for singing background on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”—to create the look and sound of her character.
“When I heard [Clayton’s] story and that she got called in to record that song in the middle of the night [while] she was pregnant, I was like, ‘I have to do all these takes live, as much as I physically can, just because these women were just working so much.’ It’s very tiring on the voice, but that was definitely extremely humbling,” Be says. “I got to learn how disco and rock and roll were kind of like these two competing rebel music or alternative music [styles]. The face of rock and roll was the white man; the face of disco music was the Black woman.”
While her fellow cast members who play the members of Daisy Jones & The Six went to an intensive “band camp,” where they honed and improved their musical skills, Be worked mostly with pianist Evan Vidar, music producer Tony Berg, and songwriter Blake Mills to develop Simone’s songs. When audiences first meet her, Simone is a soul singer (“She’s very poised and uses very specific hand gestures,” Be says) and tries to fit into the mold of what it meant to be a Black singer in 1970s Los Angeles by singing a cover of “A Song for You” instead of a song of her own. “What made me choose that song was the lyrics—not just the lyrics being poignant and paralleling the relationship with Daisy, but also the sense of longing, the sense of ‘please remember me,’” she explains.
Be, who describes her own musical style as an eclectic “fusion” of influences from her Jamaican and Brazilian heritage, says she even had to create a distinct sound for Simone that was different from her own. “With Simone, it was really making sure that I sounded like an American person, because you could hear in some of my takes vocally how much I bring that background with me,” she says. “There were a few takes on ‘A Song for You’ that we had to go back and redo, because [with] my phrasing, my inflections, you can tell it’s someone who grew up in the ’90s; you can hear that I’m not American sometimes. So I was able to kind of put that twist a little bit back into the later episodes with her own disco songs.”
After growing disillusioned with her record label and realizing that the producer who sexually harassed her also stole her voice, Simone, seeking a fresh start, decides to move to New York, where she moves in and falls in love with Bernie (Ayesha Harris), a DJ and music producer she met at a rooftop party in Los Angeles. For Be, the “most gratifying part” of Daisy Jones was being able to “tell a truthful story to the best of our abilities” about the queer, Black women who owned the underground club scene and the clubbers who were able to find a joyful sense of community.
“That was a safe space for Black, Brown, Latino people to feel joy, and that’s really the birth of disco music,” she says. “It started in underground, marginalized spots, and predominantly from music that was coming from immigrants, and [there was] that transition from RnB and soul into what later became disco music.”
“When she gets to the clubs, physically, we get to see [Simone] move a little differently,” Be adds. “In Episode 7, when Bernie just kind of puts her on the spot and asks her to sing, there’s that little moment of anger, and then growing confidence as she starts singing to the crowd. And then, when we see her in the studio recording and writing ‘Last Night’ together, she’s still finding her voice again and growing from that place of confidence.”
While viewers are able to gain a deeper understanding of Simone’s rise to fame as a disco pioneer in the screen adaptation, her friendship with Daisy remains a cornerstone of the story. From the moment they first met in their chemistry read, Be, who admits she has a “tendency to not know who anybody is” in her audition rooms in order to control her nerves, quickly developed an easy rapport with Keough, who was effectively following in the footsteps of her grandfather Elvis Presley for this period piece. Together, with the executive producers, Be and Keough discussed at length the dynamics of interracial friendships during that era.
“Riley and I spoke a lot about how these two women didn’t have the terminology we have today as people who navigate sociopolitical issues,” reveals Be, who feels Simone “is just as lonely” as Daisy. “We understood Simone, at least initially when we first meet her, as someone who was, to some level, consciously choosing to bypass a lot of the sociopolitical dynamics in order to make her dreams come true, because that’s what she thought she had to do. She was willing to play the game.”
Playing the game means Simone, like so many Black women, isn’t afforded the luxury of being vulnerable in public spaces, but she allows herself to be vulnerable around Daisy and Bernie behind closed doors. “I think she’s extremely smart,” Be says. “We see that also in how she only lets [out] her natural hair when she’s in the house. And the moment she steps out of the house, there is a different wig, and [she’s] also being polite, being pleasant, all the time in order to navigate the industry.”
Simone’s friendship with Daisy comes to a head in the show’s seventh episode, when Simone drops her burgeoning career in New York and flies to a Greek island (with Bernie in tow) to “rescue” Daisy. However, upon arrival, Simone and Bernie discover that Daisy isn’t in trouble; she just wanted Simone to be her maid of honor in her wedding to Nicky Fitzpatrick (Gavin Drea), a member of a noble family in Ireland. But when she discovers that Daisy is planning to give up her place in a famous band to live with a man she barely knows, Simone confronts Daisy about the opportunities she’s been given and her feelings for front man Billy Dunne (Sam Claflin), to which Daisy misguidedly asks if Simone is in love with her.
In the rehearsal for that scene, Be reveals that she and the producers went through many colorful variations of what Simone calls Daisy before getting on the boat to leave the island, but they eventually settled on “real selfish bitch” to show how hurt Simone feels at that suggestion. “I feel that [scene] also touches a little bit upon how a lot of times people don’t understand queer dynamics,” Be says. “You can just be two good friends, and it doesn’t matter the sexuality of the people. I found a lot of pleasure, actually, in the scenes with Daisy, mostly because it felt like it was the first time that Simone was being a little less silenced in that dynamic.”
Living as Simone proved to be a challenge for Be, who was “extremely aware that she had to be silenced, and she was also making a conscious choice to stay silenced,” because she didn’t have the privilege of rocking the boat at that time. “The hardest part for me as an actor, as a human being, was to accept that,” she says. “but I knew that I had to in order to give back the dignity to the women who lived [through] that, because that’s their truth, and I could never take away their truth.”
In the final episodes of the season, Simone struggles to choose between coming out and declaring her love for Bernie, and staying closeted to advance her career. But in the end, “I think she understands that she doesn’t have to compromise her happiness, her dignity, in order to find success,” Be says. “I think it was also an important moment historically when people started to understand that there are different formats of how to not necessarily make music, but how to sell music, and how you can find audiences that will still nurture your authenticity without [you] having to sell your soul and without having to sell who you are.”
Daisy Jones & The Six is now streaming on Prime Video. The final two episodes will premiere on Friday, March 24.