Today is Nina Simone’s birthday. It’s hard to talk about something that you love as much as I love her music, it’s hard to talk about something that means so much to you. I suppose everybody is familiar with the autobiographical facts, so I’ll start there but keep it brief. She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933. Her mother was a methodist preacher and a housemaid, her father was a handyman. From a very early age, she was determined to be a concert pianist. Her mother’s employer provided funds for piano lessons. After high school, she applied to the Curtis Institute, in Philadelphia, but was rejected. She moved to New York and studied at Juliard, supporting herself by playing piano in a bar, where she took the name Nina Simone to hide her profession from her mother. She was discovered, had a hit with I Loves You Porgy, and continued to record and play, jumping from one record company to another for most of the rest of her life.
Her friendship with Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and others helped to focus her fire, and she worked for civil rights with characteristic passion. She wrote the blistering song Mississippi Goddam (which has come to mind more than once lately!) in response the the murder of Medgar Evers and to the death of 4 black children after the bombing of a church. She eventually grew disillusioned in America, and moved abroad. She would live in Barbados, Liberia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, London, and finally the South of France, where she felt peaceful and free, and grew grapes, peaches, strawberries and raspberries. She was known to be temperamental, moody and volatile. She was a hypnotic performer, but an unpredictable one, and on more than one occasion she would berate the audience for talking. “My original plan was to be the first black concert pianist–not a singer–and it never occurred to me that I’d be playing to audiences that were talking and drinking and carrying on when I played the piano. So I felt that if they didn’t want to listen, they could go the hell home.”
She defied labels, combining jazz, pop, blues, classical, gospel. She disliked the term “jazz,” which she saw as a way for white people to define black people, and she preferred to think of the genre as black classical music. Her voice is unmistakable and indefinable, deep, rich but light, raw and full of emotion, but with an odd, edgy coolness that cuts right to the most vulnerable part of you. She can take the sappiest song and make it speak to you about the human condition in such an intensely honest way that you feel she understands. “I feel what they feel. And people who listen to me know that, and it makes them feel like they’re not alone.” She brings a magnetic dignity and gravity to everything she does, but she’s funny as hell, too, and light-hearted and surprising.
And she’s angry, furious. Her anger is passionate, raw, terrifying, thrilling, and yes, uncomfortable at times. In today’s atmosphere of banned books, racist coups as “legitimate discourse,” and schools forbidding discussion of anything that makes white people uncomfortable, Nina Simone’s anger feels like a razor cutting through the absurdity. It feels like the pure distillation of generations, centuries of anger: the explosive voice of everyone with so many reasons to be irate and so little license to give vent to that anger. It feels necessary and important. But it feels tragic as well, because the other side of that razor’s edge is bottomless pain. We owe it to Nina Simone and so many others to talk and talk and teach that deep in our system and society are mechanisms that cause pain and anger, that forbid expression of it. We owe her more than our discomfort, we need to feel what she feels, though I don’t often feel strong enough.
Langston Hughes, who wrote her song Backlash Blues said of Simone, “She is strange. So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet and Bertolt Brecht. She is far out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire. She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis and John Donne. So is Mort Sahl, so is Ernie Banks. You either like her or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t. If you do — wheee-ouuueu! You do!” Well that’s it! Whee-ouuuueu! She’s strange in a way that makes it good to be strange, for all of us to be strange, and in a way that feels so perfect and necessary that it almost seems normal. Or what normal should be – with that much inspiration, intelligence, intensity, wit, and passion.
Nina travelled the world looking for freedom – freedom from oppression and greed, maybe freedom from her demons. In a remarkable performance of I Wish I Knew How it Feels to Be Free (which I’ve talked about before), she defines freedom as freedom from fear, as a new way of seeing, as a chance to be a “little less like me.” She’d learn to fly, and she’d look down and see herself, and she wouldn’t know herself – she’d have new hands, new vision. She tells us that the Bible says be transformed by the renewal of your mind. And her songs create a world with their intensely honest eccentricity, a world where you feel moved to your soul, and inspired to renew your mind, and be brave enough to see things anew, as they really are, or as they could be.
Read Ralph Brown’s account of what it was like to see Nina Simone live.