Activist, artist, singer, songwriter, classical pianist - all these are merely anaemic categories by which we attempt to describe the legendary Nina Simone. For 70 years she stayed true to herself, passionate about her beliefs and writing and performing songs that will endure for generations.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tyron, North Carolina during the Great Depression, she took an early interest in music, reportedly playing piano as early as two years old. By the age of seven she was an aspiring classical pianist and singing with her sisters in the church choir. But the virulent racism in 1940s US had an early and lasting effect upon her. Years later she recalled, as the most formative event of her life, a piano recital she gave in the local library at the age of 12 at which her parents were asked to stand at the back because they were black.
With the financial support of the local black community she was sent to a girls’ boarding school and then became one of the first black female artists to attend New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Her classical training came to an abrupt halt at 21, however, when she was refused a scholarship by the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia which she maintained was due to her race.
Shut out of the classical-music establishment, she found herself pursuing a reluctant singing career for which she is now world famous. While her earliest recorded songs - such as a rendition of the Gershwin brothers’ ‘I Loves You Porgy’ - propelled her to fame, it was her own compositions which broke new ground in political music. In 1963, after the church bombing that killed four young black girls in Birmingham, Alabama, and the assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, she wrote ‘Mississippi Goddam’:
They try to say it’s a communist plot.
All I want is equality,
for my sister my brother my people and me…’
Weaving the turbulent events around her into her music, she dramatically transformed both music and politics and made them her own. Songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’, ‘Backlash Blues’ and ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ became anthemic to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Her songs about sensuality, beauty and love also contained within them a potent feminism. Songs like ‘Four Women’ and ‘Blues for Mama’ conveyed a deep anger at the injustice of sexism and racism combined with a rousing call to black women to hold their heads high, such as in ‘Images’:
‘She does not know
She thinks her brown body
Has no glory.
If she could dance
Under palm trees
And see her image in the river
She would know.
But there are no palm trees
On the street,
And dishwater gives back no images.’
In 1978 Simone was arrested, and soon released, for withholding taxes in 1971-73 in protest at her government’s undeclared war in Vietnam. Her song ‘Mr Backlash’, co-written with the late poet/activist Langston Hughes perhaps best sums up her sentiments at the time:
‘Mr Backlash, Mr Backlash, Just who do you think I am? You raise my taxes, freeze my wages, And send my son to Vietnam. You give me second-class houses, And second-class schools. Do you think that alla colored folks Are just second-class fools? Mr Backlash, I’m gonna leave you With the backlash blues’
Soon after she left the United States permanently, living in the Caribbean, West Africa and finally Europe where she bought her first home in southern France. In a 1998 interview she blamed racism in the US for her self-imposed exile saying she ‘paid a heavy price for fighting the establishment’.
Never holding back, she enthralled millions with a music that defies category. ‘To most white people, jazz means black and jazz means dirt and that’s not what I play. I play black classical music. That’s why I don’t like the term “jazz”, and Duke Ellington didn’t either - it’s a term that’s simply used to identify black people.’
In a 1997 interview she explained how she wished to be remembered: ‘I want to be remembered as a diva from beginning to end who never compromised in what she felt about racism and how the world should be, and who to the end of her days consistently stayed the same.’