I don’t take this article lightly, because this is a commentary on an incredible woman who lived a very tumultuous life, during very difficult times. I just finished watching the Nina Simone documentary “What happened, Nina Simone?” and it would be hard not to make a commentary after watching such a heartbreaking documentary of the although at times wildly happy, often anguished difficult life of such an incredible musical genius. The documentary makes us ask ourselves if the world ever really lets us be who we truly are, and states how Nina Simone was a woman who DID dare to live her life with more honesty than most of people would ever dream of.
Nina Simone grew up playing the piano: classical piano. Her first true goal was to be the first black classical pianist, and someday get to play at Carnegie Hall. It wasn’t until she was rejected by her college of choice for entry to their classical piano program, that she felt her first strong blow of racism. That was the moment she realized she would have to change arenas in which she was playing music. That was when she began switching to styles of blues, and jazz music, and adding her own personal music flavorings.
She started off playing gigs on piano, but still didn’t sing. After landing her first constant gig, she was shortly told after that if she didn’t sing, she would be replaced. She was making more money than she had ever seen in her life before, so Nina Simone started to do just that.
She would later on get married to a man would stop his own career to start managing Nina’s career. Their marriage was an extremely tumultuous one, which sadly also turned into a violent and abusive one for Nina Simone, as the pressure from her husband to work on her career, and his physical abuse towards began to drain on her soul. They also had a daughter among the years of hardship, who often found herself in the middle of their fighting, sometimes quite literally.
Nina Simone became very active in the Civil Rights Movement, becoming close with all the head spokesmen and women of the movement including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin and many others.
Unfortunately as her concerts and song repertoire became more political, her career became less successful. She sometimes watched other female singers like Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight and wished to perform in the venues of higher stature, but her ferocious involvement in Civil Rights made concert promoters wonder if her performances had merely become political commentary, and she thus began to be limited in performance venue opportunities.
After a massive church bombing happened in Mississippi, she wrote the song “Mississippi, Goddamn!” It was her intentionally very angry response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi; and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four black children. Her song was vastly rejected by mainstream radio stations and by large groups of people. But for Nina, “Mississippi, Goddamn!” was one of the first songs where she felt she was finally talking about what WANTED to be talking about. It was one of the tunes that launched her into the Civil Rights Movement and along with “Black, Young, and Gifted,” became one of the most popular protest songs. Here a video of the song:
I won’t give the whole movie away, because it is truly worth watching on your own. The movie speaks a lot about American history, marital hardships and its affects on families and children, and of course about songwriting and how and from where all of her incredible masterpieces were birthed.
While being in the thick of her days in the Civil Rights Movement, Nina Simone is interviewed and heard saying the most valuable and important words. She says:
“I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty……
How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?!”
Amen to that! I have always believed that artists hold a great amount of power and RESPONSIBILITY. If you have a platform where thousands or even millions of people are going to listen to and care about what you say, why not say something important that will help create change and influence things positively? Even if you do not want to write songs with political lyrics, you can choose to be outspoken about things you believe in off stage instead. Nina left us in 2003, but her music, her activism and her energy will stay with us for years and years to come. Thank you Nina for sharing so much with us.