September 3, 2020

Born Eunice Wayton on February 21, 1933, Nina grew up in North Carolina, USA. From the age of 3 she was playing gospel songs to accompany the church choir and her talent attracted so much attention that the town started a collection to fund her classical music tuition. Setting out with the aim to become the first prominent black concert pianist, she studied for a year at Julliard with the financial support of many in her hometown of Tryon, and was then rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, implicitly due to her race. The rejection was brutal with Nina saying “I never really got over that jolt of racism”, and was the catalyst of self-reinvention that led to the Nina Simone we know today.

By 1954, she had accepted a job playing piano at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, N.J., where the owner expected her to play and sing. At twenty years old, Simone had never sang and performed in public, but after her debut, she became an instant success. Word began to spread about this “prolific songwriter” and “generous interpreter of music from various genres.” Simone often transformed popular tunes of the day into unique syntheses of jazz, blues, gospel, and folk music. She became revered for her “rich, deep velvet vocal tones,” combined with her mastery of the keyboard.

After performing in nightclubs, she began to sing and mixed her classical training with blues and folk music. Her first album Little Girl Blue was released in 1957 and scored a top 20 hit with her cover of “I Loves You Porgy”.

Nina Simone is primarily known as a singer, despite never having received any vocal training. Her dark and husky tone is among the most distinctive of her era.  However, she was also active in the US Civil Rights Movement. Nina’s passion for and involvement with the Civil Rights Movement began with an incident

at her first classical recital at the age of 12, when her parents were moved from their seats to make space for white people. In response to this, she refused to perform until her parents were returned to their original seats. This proved to be the first of many incidents when Nina would use her position to publicly condemn injustice against others.

Simone’s time as an artist with Colpix records resulted in nine successful studio albums. It was during the Civil Rights Movement era of the 1960s that some of Simone’s most powerful and notable songs were recorded. Some of these include I Put a Spell on You (1964), To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1966) and, of course, protest songs such as Mississippi Goddamn (1963). After fading from the radar during much of the 1970s, she made a comeback in Europe with her song My Baby Just Cares for Me in 1987. This song put her back on the map in smaller countries around the world, and also in the United States. By the 1980s, her selection of songs “ranged from rock and roll to Beatles and Bee Gees tunes,” including her rendition of the song To Love Somebody.

The power of music to incite and encourage social change is a concept powerfully displayed in the life and work of Nina Simone, as she used her platform to amplify the voice of black people and black females in particular. Despite her wide range of styles, there was one overarching theme in her repertoire; racial inequality. Simone had always performed songs that reflected her African heritage such as “Brown Baby” and “Zungo” from her album  At the Village Gate (1962). However, her first explicitly political song was “Mississippi Goddam”, written in response to the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing. Even with its relatively tame lyrics and moderate demands — “All I want is equality for my sister, my brother, my people and me” — the song was banned in several southern US states. Dozens of other songs- “Old Jim Crow”, “Backlash Blues”, “Why (The King of Love is Dead)”- further cement Nina Simone’s position as a mouthpiece at the forefront of of the civil rights movement.

Nina was an advocate of violent protest and personified the taboo emotion defined by psychiatrists William Grier and Price Cobbs as “black rage”. Instead of being hopeful and confident, her songs were written from the perspective of a black woman out of patience, with little hope for the future of America and rightly so. Her music erupted from her like a bullet, aimed to kill and expressing black rage in a way never heard before. Nina herself said that through using her music to address civil rights issues she found “a purpose more important than classical music’s pursuit of excellence.”

By the 1990s, Simone had lived and travelled in countries throughout Europe, had two marriages behind her, and an undeniably successful career. At the age of 70, she joined the ancestors on April 21, 2003.

The musical anomaly Nina Simone combined a range of musical genres and human emotions: from anger, to ecstasy, to joy, to longing, to fear. Her entire life was a struggle for freedom which she achieved in many ways by in breaking conventions of race, gender and genre. Her legacy is ongoing, with her music still in popular demand.

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