Nina Simone was one of the foremost singer/songwriters and Civil Right activists of her generation, revolutionizing the music genre as well as the African-American voice.
Eunice Kathleen Waymon (aka Nina Simone) was born on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, the daughter of John Divine Waymon, a handyman, and Mary Kate Waymon, a Methodist minister. Simone’s passion for music would begin at age three when she began playing the piano, and later she began taking lessons when her mother’s employer learned of her talent; coming from a home of eight children, acquiring enough funds for Simone to pursue her music would have been too costly otherwise. From her early performances at the local church, Simone flourished into an accomplished soloist – yet her first classical recital at age 12 would give her the bitter taste of segregation and racial conflict when her parents had to give away their seats for white audience members. Simone refused to play until her parents were restored to their original seats, and this would spark Simone’s vigilance in fighting for Civil Rights and becoming an active voice in the movement with other notable artists such as poet and friend Langston Hughes. She went on to study at the Allen High School for Girls in Ashville, North Carolina, before advancing to a post-secondary education.
Musical Prowess, Social Obstacles
Though Simone would become an intuitive and technically brilliant classical pianist, race would continue to prove an obstacle for her success. Her application to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected despite her musical prowess; Simone put this down to color. She then relocated to New York City to study at the Julliard School of Music. Simone would adopt her unforgettable stage name, “Nina” meaning “Little Girl” in Spanish, at Atlantic City’s Midtown Bar & Grill where she both sang and played to pay for her private tuition. “Simone” was inspired by the French actress Simone Signoret, star in the Casque d’or and suggested by her then boyfriend. Her eclectic nomenclature would be symbolic of her musical style; Simone adopted a diverse blend of jazz, blues, soul, and classical which won the affections of her audience, demonstrating an acute affinity with both her fellow musicians and her fans.
Stardom and the Civil Rights Movement
Simone’s success quickly followed: recordings of George Gershwin’s iconic “I Loves You Porgy” from Porgy and Bess and the debut of her Little Girl Blue album led to a contract with Colpix Records, then onto the Dutch Philips, and later to RCA. During this period she would marry beatnik Don Ross, then later New York police detective Andrew Stroud, who would become her manager. Though her love life was said to be fraught, Simone kept pushing enhance her musical career as well as to develop a resilient activist stance, placing her professional life ever in the fore. Her first mighty impact came with the then controversial song “Mississippi Goddam,” a defiant reaction to the bombing of a Birmingham church where four black children were killed and a response to the murder of Medgar Evers.
Simone would follow this strand of impassioned activism, becoming a key performer at the Selma to Montgomery Marches and engaging in an aggressive, yet empowering dialogue which encouraged militant action to form a separate state, contrary to the language of Martin Luther King. Yet Simone faced a very common yet under-approached issue: she was black, and she was also a woman. Where the Civil Rights Movement to some degree excluded women despite the presence of heroes such as Rosa Parks, so did the Feminist Movement exclude women of color. Simone’s poignant “Four Women” from Wild is the Wind would unravel a painful portrait of the subjugation of women of color, becoming one of her most crucial ballads. She would continue to rally the call of the community with works such as Langston Hughes’ “Blacklash Blues” from Nina Simone Sings the Blues in ‘67 and Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted, and Black with Weldon Irvine in ’72. Simone would protest the Vietnam War by refusing to pay taxes, leading to exile in Barbados (and a divorce from Stroud), Liberia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, then finally France. She continually toured to great crowds which expanded into a mixed audience and like her friend “Mama Africa” Miriam Makeba, become the voice of a people.
Simone would leave an indelible imprint on the Civil Rights Movement as well as the music world, not only creating powerful new anthems but celebrating classics by jazz singers as well as folk tunes (“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” bears a magnificent resonance when sung by Simone, for instance). But life for Simone was difficult. Social pressures not only from being a black woman but staking a place in a competitive industry as well as carrying the weight of a movement on her shoulders would take its toll even on a character as formidable as Simone’s, as well as her own struggles with bipolar disorder and later on, breast cancer. Renowned for outbursts and a tragic personal life which bore resemblance to her idol Billie Holiday (whose own struggles were left largely unresolved due to abusive relationships and a long and turbulent battle with drug addiction) Simone had a violent temper, even trying to shoot an executive at a record company accused of taking an undue amount of royalties. While very personal, Simone stated that much of her tribulations were reflective of a greater social turmoil which even to this day remains problematic.
Simone passed away on April 21, 2003 in Carry-le-Rouet, Bouches-du-Rhône, France at age 70. The African-American community truly lost a great voice: Grammy Hall of Fame recognition, 15 nominations, three honorary degrees (including one from Curtis), and several other accomplishments and chart toppers has made her one of the most highly-achieved female artists of all time. Yet Nina Simone is so much more than that – even today, her anthems hail a generation who will not accept oppression but fight for their rights and the rights of their children, forging an unforgettable legacy that like Simone’s music will live on forever.
Henrietta Cast is a freelance writer based in London, England. She grew up in NYC and has spent most of her writing career covering history and her heroes and inspirations from the past.