Nina Simone, the great singer, musician, composer and civil rights activist died on April 21 at her home in the south of France.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21st 1933, Simone was one of eight children brought up in a poor black district in Tyron, North Carolina. By the age of six, her talent was noticed when she began to play the piano and sing in the local church choir.
At the age of 10, she gave her first piano recital at the town library. This was to be one of her earliest experiences of racism. During her performance the concert organisers removed her parents from the front row to allow some whites to sit down.
Dependent on financial help from local supporters, Nina struggled to fund her way through the Juilliard School of Music in New York where she had developed an interest in classical music. Again racism in the US led to her being rejected to further her study of classical music at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
To make ends meet, the young musician took a job at a bar in Atlantic City where she took the stage name Nina Simone and for the first time began to sing at the piano. During the late 50’s Nina’s audiences grew and she began recording with Bethlehem Records. Her first album, entitled Jazz as played in an Exclusive Side Street Club, was released in 1957 and the single from that record I Loves You Porgy became a national hit.
Around that time young blacks across America had begun to directly challenge the racist nature of the US ruling class and the state. Violent confrontations between black youth and the state and white terror groups such as the Ku Klux Klan radicalised a whole generation of black workers and youth.
During the 60’s, Nina Simone began to write protest songs that would become anthems for the civil rights movement. “Old Jim Crow” was a direct reference to the state laws used to segregate blacks from whites in the south in schools, housing, public transport and other areas.
In 1963, four black children were killed in the Birmingham Mississippi church bombing and the arrested white man was acquitted of murder. Many black musicians, including John Coltrane with his composition ‘Alabama’, were to produce protest songs against the racist murders and the racist judicial system. But Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” was to best capture the mood of anger amongst an increasingly militant black population.
“For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,
I made you thought I was kiddin',
Picket lines School boy cots,
They try to say it's a communist plot,
All I want is equality
for my sister my brother my people and me,
Yes you lied to me all these years,
You told me to wash and clean my ears,
And talk real fine just like a lady,
And you'd stop calling me Sister Sadie,
Oh but this whole country is full of lies,
You're all gonna die and die like flies,
I don't trust you any more,
You keep on saying "Go slow!" "Go slow!"
But that's just the trouble "do it slow"
Desegregation "do it slow"
Mass participation "do it slow"
Reunification "do it slow"
Do things gradually "do it slow"
But bring more tragedy "do it slow"
Why don't you see it
Why don't you feel it
I don't know I don't know,
You don't have to live next to me,
Just give me my equality,
Everybody knows about Mississippi,
Everybody knows about Alabama,
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Goddam, That's it!”
She performed the song at the end of Selma Montgomery March when herself, Sammy Davis Jnr, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and others crossed police and army lines and made their stand in front of 40,000 people.
By the late 60’s Simone was regularly appearing at fundraising gigs. She was closely associated with key figures such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, a founder of the radical left-wing Black Panther Party. After the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Simone left the US and lived in many different countries such as Liberia, Barbados, Switzerland, France, and Trinidad.
In 1978, she was arrested for refusing to pay taxes in protest at the war in Vietnam. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s Simone continued to produce unclassifiable music – ranging from folk to jazz to pop – which continues to inspire musicians throughout the world today.
‘To be Young, Gifted & Black’ (1969) Nina Simone & Weldon Irvine jr
How I long to know the truth
There are times when I look back
And I am haunted by my youth
Oh but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say
To be young, gifted and black
Is where it's at