Some legendary figures defy easy categorization. When we talk about Nina Simone, the High Priestess of Soul, do we talk first about her prodigious piano playing? Or about her penetrating, arresting, smokey voice? The voice that demands that we pay attention, that we think, as well as feel? This is a voice of a revolution, one that challenges the listener. This is the bold voice of an activist, who does not have time for your shit. Listen! Her voice challenges us – it’s the expansive sound, the hard edges, the enunciation of every syllable, and the content. Simone sang relatively few ballads compared with other jazz singers of the day, choosing instead songs with a more political message that does not seek to comfort, but rather to undermine the listener’s comfort. Simone focused on uncomfortable songs. Some, like Lilac Wine, or Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, are about loneliness and heartache. Others, like the standard Strange Fruit, or her own song, Mississippi Goddam, are political songs about the unjust murder of black people at the hands of white people in the South.
Simone was focused on racial justice for her entire life. She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, and grew up in the segregated south, in North Carolina, the sixth child out of eight. She grew up in a religious household; her mother was a Methodist Minister, and her father was a handyman. When she gave her first classical recital at the age of twelve, she refused to start her concert until her parents were permitted to sit in the front row. A child prodigy, she had ambitions of becoming a concert pianist, and ultimately enrolled in Juilliard. She was rejected though, from the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and was sure that this was due to racism.
Simone moved her focus from Classical to Jazz when she started gigging around the Atlantic City area, adopting her stage name so that her mother wouldn’t know that she was playing “the devil’s music.” She signed to Colpix records, and cut some pop songs to make money but continued to explore jazz on her own time. She wasn’t interested in popular music beyond a money making capacity, and largely abandoned it once she switched record labels.
As she became more entrenched in the Civil Rights movement, Simone performed at many of the marches, including the famous Selma march, was close friends with Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, and advocated the use of violent protests and a black nationalist ideology. Her activism and convictions were the driving force behind many of her songs, but was, perhaps, most evident in Mississippi Goddam, a song that she wrote in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, which left four black girls dead and a fifth partially blinded. She would later come to believe that the record industry boycotted her material as a result of this politically charged song for which she became known.
Miss Simone died in her home in France, in 2003, survived her daughter, now a Broadway actress, and a catalogue of music that challenges us to think, feel, and remain present in the face of difficulties. What a voice, and how badly we need this today.
(Post script bragging rights: the author got to see Miss Simone live at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles on her final tour before she passed away in 2003 from cancer. She came out on the stage wearing a simple, elegant black dress, and held an ostrich feather aloft while the audience gave her accolades, and then sang a small selection of her most powerful songs.)