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Nina Simone: a revolutionary artist fighting for freedom
Nina Simone was a genre-defying singer, songwriter and pianist who revolutionised the music industry and used her talent to vocalise the African-American affliction during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. As she put it:
“It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” — Nina Simone.
Born Eunice Kathleen Wayton in February 1933, Simone was the 6th child of an unlikely pairing: a preacher and a handyman. She taught herself to play piano by ear at age 3 listening to hymns, and soon after, began accompanying her mother’s church choir. Recognising her extraordinary talent, the people in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina established a fund for her formal music training at the prestigious, Juilliard School of Music in New York. This act of unity was astonishing for a town in the south during an era of racial segregation. Citing Bach, Chopin, Beethoven and Schubert as her inspirations, she had her sights set on becoming the world’s first prominent African-American classical pianist. Over the years, Simone flourished into an accomplished soloist. Even as an independent black female, she was able to make ends meet by teaching piano to white and black students alike.
However, after being denied a scholarship to the esteemed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia despite her musical prowess and by a decision speculated to be based on racial injustice, Simone’s ego and sense of reality were shattered:
“You feel the shame, humiliation and anger at being just another victim of prejudice and at the same time there’s the nagging worry that maybe…you’re just no good.” — Nina Simone.
This rejection was not her first taste of the bitter segregation and racial issues that were rampant at the time. On the night of her first classical recital at age 12, her parents were forced to give up their seats to white audience members — a move Nina did not accept. Nina used her privilege by refusing to perform until her parents were returned to their original seats. This became one of her first acts of resistance where she publicly condemned injustice against others.
Simone’s career took off at age 24, after landing a job at the Midtown Bar in Atlantic City. She gained popularity because of her unique music style — a fusion of jazz, blues, soul and a clearly classical counterpoint. It was at this time that Eunice adopted the unforgettable moniker Nina Simone, a move she hoped would make her “devils music” unrecognisable to her religious parents. Her continued dedication to music led to the recording of more than 40 albums, following the success of her debut album Little Girl Blue.
The power of music to incite and catalyse social change remained a constant throughout her life and work and she used her success and platform to amplify the voice of black people and black females, despite her place in society and the voice of critics.
“Critics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing, and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in. It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz. On top of that I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So, saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board — by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.” — Nina Simone (I Put A Spell on You Autobiography).
Her diverse range of styles and genre-mixing made it hard to put Simone into a “neat slot”, however the one theme that remained constant was her passion for fighting racial inequality. Continuing to perform songs that reflected her African-American heritage such as “Brown Baby”, “Four Women” and “Young, Gifted and Black”, she became more active in the Civil Rights Movement, taking part in the Selma to Montgomery marches and recording several civil rights anthems.
Nina’s first explicitly political song was “Mississippi Goddam”, written in response to the Birmingham church bombing and murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963 (the then President of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership). The lyrics ring true for the society Nina dreamed of at the time — “All I want is equality for my sister, my brother, my people and me” — however, this song (among others) was banned in several southern US states.
Nina personified the taboo emotion of “black rage” and was often compared to the stereo-typified angry black woman, as her music stemmed from her growing impatience and dwindling hope for the future of America. Fiery and unpredictable, her performances often consisted of her vocals erupting from her like a bullet, aiming to target and kill all those who remained ignorant to the message they were delivering.
Growing tired of the racial injustice and inequality in America, Simone expatriated to Liberia, Nigeria and several European countries and continued to perform up until her last days of life. Simone passed away in 2003 at the age of 70 in France.
Nina Simone’s legacy lives on through her music, continuously sampled by artists such as Jay Z, Lauryn Hill and Kanye West and through the ongoing struggle for social justice and racial equality. Simone’s words could not be any more relevant today:
“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!”
Nina Simone: The Revolutionary
Listen below to Nina shed some light on the importance of using her art as a voice for the stories that go unheard.
Interview Excerpt taken from “Nina Simone: Great Performances — Live College Concerts & Interview”.