Nina Simone: An Incendiary Voice
Nina Simone wasn’t merely one of the best singers and pianists of Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, and Soul from the 20th Century. From the stage, she also gave a voice to the fight against racism and for the civil rights of the Afro-Americans. Maybe this led to her entering into history as the “High Priestess of Soul”. 19 years after her death, why remember Nina Simone?
Nina Simone, a Review of Her Life
Eunice Kathleen Waymon – her true name – was born in Tryon, North Carolina, United State of America, on 21st February 1933, in the heart of an Afro-American working-class family. She was only 3 years old when she played the piano for the first time in church where her mother was a preacher.
At 12 years old she experienced her first encounter with racism: it was during her first concert when the organisers forced her parents to sit at the back simply because they were black. She refused to play until they were allowed to sit in the front row, and she was granted her request. This was the way her career began as an artist; with her head high and a character of iron.
After accustoming herself to the works of Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Debussy, by the hand of her then professor Mrs Mazzanovich, she decided what she wanted for the future of her life: to become the first black woman in classical music.
However, her wishes were once again blocked by the colour of her skin. Although she had taken a year of classes at the prestigious the University of Julliard, – that had been paid for with money collected for her in Tryon – they refused to allow her entry to the Curtis Institute of Philadelphia. Many years later, the same year as her death, this academy of music would give her an honorary diploma, but this was unimaginable at the time.
From then on, Eunice was installed in Atlantic City and her entire family moved to Philadelphia, just to be close. This brought her to take an important decision that was unthinkable for any girl that had come before: begin to play the piano at bars all night in order to make a living.
One of the owners of the clubs where she earned 90 dollars – 50 of which she gave to her parents – put her back to the wall: if she didn’t sing, she couldn’t continue playing. As a result, without planning it and, maybe also, without wanting it, she started to sing every type of melody: spiritual, jazz, soul. Nevertheless, she did so under a pseudonym, from atrocious fear that her mother would learn that she made “the devil’s music”. This pseudonym was “Nina Simone”, and so emerged one of the greatest singers of the 20th Century.
Promptly, in 1958, she recorded various songs on the topics that she had sung in bars, and her first album “Little Girl Blue”, saw the light. Thanks to her release, her version of “I Love You, Porgy”, by Ira and George Gershwin became popular, and in 1960 arrived at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival.
“What I was interested in was conveying an emotional message, which means using everything you’ve got inside you sometimes to barely make a note, or if you have to strain to sing, you sing”, explained Nina in one of the reports from the documentary that covers her life and work, “What Happened, Miss Simone?”, directed by Liz Garbus.
A short time later, she met a policeman from Brooklyn who she married in 1961 and who became her manager, but also her abuser.
In a climate of work tension and gender violence, they had a daughter, Lisa, who Nina could barely watch grow due to being permanently in movement and in concerts. These were years of personal decline that caused sudden attacks of anger in the artist and emotional instability; an exasperating character and a torn relationship with her daughter.
Nevertheless, the success of her production was incomparable. Her interpretations of “I put a spell on you” and “My baby just cares for me”, amongst others, were widely acclaimed and she began to record not one, but two discs per year.
From Singer of African Descent to Activist
Yet, whilst Nina was heard in important salons by rich white people and became, in an indisputable manner, a new star, the Afro-American community had now launched a fight on the streets against racism. The teacher and activist Rosa Parks had refused to give her seat on the bus to a white man, – refuting the then established “Jim Crow Laws” of racial segregation – and each time the Afro-American civil rights movement created more weight and influence.
The events that took place on the 13th of September 1963 were, probably, decisive for Nina Simone. In Birmingham, Alabama, an attack by the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan against a church left four black girls murdered. The rage and hate this provoked in Nina was channelled into “Mississippi, Goddam” in 1964, with which she publicly joined the civil rights struggle for the black community. She played this song in Carnegie Hall, one of the most important concert halls in the United States, for a predominantly white and illustrious, public.
“She said it, talking about ‘Mississippi, goddamn you.’ We all wanted to say it, but she said it. That’s the difference that set her aside from the rest of them.” recounted the activist Dick Gregory in the documentary, “What Happened Miss Simone?”
The song was immediately converted into a hymn against oppression and racial humiliation. Nina created other songs like “To be young, gifted and black”, “Blacklash Blues”, “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free” and “Pirate Jenny”, which she interpreted through her strong affiliation with the cause of her people. But she didn’t only put a voice in contralto to this fight but also her body: she was one of the artists that participated in the massive March on Selma in 1965 with Martin Luther King Jr, one of the leaders of the movement against racial discrimination.
Her activism cost her to antagonise herself with discographies, being excluded from the entertainment industry and her music was censored on radio stations. Nevertheless, she was asked in an interview during that time, what did liberty mean to her and she responded, “It’s just a feeling. It’s just a feeling. It’s like how do you tell somebody how it feels to be in love?
How are you going to tell anybody who has not been in love, how it feels to be in love? You cannot do it to save your life. You can describe things, but you can’t tell them. But you know it when it happens. That’s what I mean by free. I had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free, and that’s something else. That’s really something else! I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really; no fear.” (Interview with Peter Rodis, New York 1968)
Her rebellion was put in a harsh light when in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. When she presented at the Westbury Music Fair, she sang “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)”. Whilst the effervescence that had characterised the civil rights movement calmed, she opted for self-exile in Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland, and Holland until she installed herself definitely in France in 1993. Her divorce had left her in economic ruin and shortly afterwards in 1980 was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and manic depressive syndrome, which had not previously been diagnosed.
Her friendships and a rejuvenated public received her warmly when she decided to return to the grand stages. However, the movement against racial humiliation that she had been involved in inspiring, had dissipated. Regardless, she continued playing with the same conviction of transmitting a message to whoever would listen.
Throughout her life, she received 15 nominations for a Grammy and in 2000 they honoured her in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Finally, breast cancer brought her down to earth, on the 21st of April 2003. In an interview for the BBC with Tom Sebastian in 1993, she explained:
“As a political weapon, it has helped me for 30 years defend the rights of American blacks and third-world people all over the world, to defend them with protest songs. To move the audience to make them conscious of what has been done to my people around the world.”Nina Simone