How Nina Simone Used Her Musical Art for Racial Justice
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Simone’s struggle for artistic and racial freedom created powerful music.
By Addison Nugent
The full house at Philharmonic Hall in New York City erupted into applause when Nina Simone’s guitarist, Emile Latimer, plucked the final haunting note of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” the concert’s opening number. Simone, whose commanding stage presence earned her the title the High Priestess of Soul, still hadn’t spoken to her audience. And now she launched into her recent hit “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life.”
Like much of Simone’s most memorable material, it was a cover — in this case a pairing of songs from Hair, the Broadway musical and ode to ’60s counterculture. After delivering vocals that were more subdued than those on her hit record, Simone improvised: “Got my soul though it’s been strained a little lately/ The voice has been abused too much lately/ But I still got my choice of live, die, laugh and cry/ And though I do them all, I gotta stay till my job is done/ And until then … I got life!”
Simone wrote her unapologetically angry “Mississippi Goddam” as a response to the assassination of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing.
It was Oct. 26, 1969, and the ecstasy of 1967’s summer of love had cooled. Simone’s deep, powerful voice reflected that cultural shift. Though accompanied by an upbeat, funk-influenced arrangement, her voice rolled over the crowd like thunder before a storm: Sexual liberation might have been in full swing, but Simone was staying on the job to remind her audience that racism and inequality were alive and well.
The Grammy-nominated live album of the Philharmonic Hall concert, Black Gold, was recorded at the height of the American civil rights movement, which was the central inspiration for Simone’s art in the ’60s. She was an advocate of violent protest and stood as a defiant emblem of what African-American psychiatrists William Grier and Price Cobbs termed, in 1968, “Black rage.” Nina, a classically trained pianist, said in her 1992 autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, that she found in civil rights “a purpose more important than classical music’s pursuit on excellence.”
Simone categorized the Philharmonic Hall concert as a “love gathering,” which was in stark contrast to a performance one year earlier when the artist had asked a crowd enraged by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Are you ready, Black people? … Are you ready to kill if necessary?”
In that same vein, Simone wrote her unapologetically angry “Mississippi Goddam” as a response to the assassination of activist Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young Black girls, both in 1963. The song was banned by numerous radio stations, some of which sent promotional singles back to the record company, each snapped in half.
That song, along with “Backlash Blues,” “Strange Fruit” and “Turning Point,” became anthems for the movement. Simone closes out Black Gold with a stirring performance of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which she wrote as an ode to Lorraine Hansberry, her recently deceased friend and the author of A Raisin in the Sun. She introduces the song by stating, “It is not addressed primarily to white people, though it does not put you down in any way. It simply ignores you.”
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, Waymon was a musical prodigy who headed north in 1950 at age 17 to study classical piano at the Juilliard School in New York City. There she trained with Carl Friedberg in preparation for an audition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but her application was denied due to what Simone suspected was racial prejudice. She began performing in nightclubs, switching to jazz, blues and folk until 1957, when she scored a Top 20 hit with “I Loves You, Porgy.”
Though she enjoyed great success throughout the ’60s, Simone battled mental health and financial issues in the ’70s. After stints in Liberia, Switzerland and Barbados, she settled in the south of France. Desperate for money, Simone agreed to sing in a cafe in Paris for $300 a night and often performed to empty rooms.
She enjoyed a career renaissance in the ’80s when her hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me” was used in a commercial for Chanel No. 5 perfume. After years of occasional touring, often to sold-out venues, Simone died of breast cancer in 2003 at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, France. She was 70 years old.
The final track on Black Gold is a cover of the Byrds’ hit “Turn! Turn! Turn!” — a Pete Seeger folk song that draws its lyrics from Ecclesiastes. Simone chants: “A time to be born, and a time to die/ A time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted/ A time to kill, and a time to heal/ A time to break down, and a time to build up.”
It’s a recitation of humanity’s enduring passages — ones that Nina Simone lived with an intensity as rare as her talent and conviction.
- Nickname: High Priestess of Soul
- Vitals: b. Feb. 21, 1933, Tryon, North Carolina – d. April 21, 2003, Carry-le-Rouet, France
- Instrument: Vocals, piano
- Standards: “I Loves You, Porgy” (1958), “My Baby Just Cares for Me” (1958), “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” (1968)
- Quirks: Classically trained pianist; used a stage name because her mother would not approve of her playing the “devil’s music” in clubs (Nina was a boyfriend’s nickname for her; Simone comes from French actress Simone Signoret).
- Another take: What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus (2015)
- Addison Nugent, OZY Author Contact Addison Nugent