May 12, 2003
Singer, pianist and composer Nina Simone died April 21 at her home near Marseilles, France. Simone was an accomplished musician who incorporated many musical styles, including classical, jazz, blues and folk. In addition, she will be remembered as an outspoken opponent of racism with a deep political consciousness.
As with so many other musicians of her generation, Nina Simone got her first musical exposure in her church, where she had become the regular pianist by age six. As a result of her renown, sympathetic townspeople donated money allowing her to get quality classical piano training. She later spent a year at the Julliard School of Music in New York thanks to a scholarship she won in high school. At the same time, she experienced a personal taste of racism, in addition to what she'd seen growing up, when she was rejected from completing her musical training at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
Her financial situation forced her to take up playing music in bars and clubs. Simone combined popular music with classical and gospel music to become known in the music scene in Philadelphia and New York. She received a record contract and gained popularity through records like a version of George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy." She later recorded popular blues tunes like Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell On You."
As Simone gained popularity, she made the acquaintance of other intellectuals who identified with the rise of the black movement of the late fifties and sixties, including writers and musicians like Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry and political activists like Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Simone credited Hansberry, author of the play "Raisin in the Sun," with inspiring her politically. Hansberry died at a young age from cancer, but asked Simone as she was dying to make it to the South for the ongoing political protests. From her own experiences, Nina Simone also became acutely aware of the way the capitalist music industry exploited artists, especially black artists.
Simone's political views come through in her recordings of songs like Oscar Brown, Jr.'s "Work Song" and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," as well as the folk song "Black is the Color." But she was best known for her defiant song, "Mississippi Goddam," which she wrote when the governor of Mississippi went out of his way to shake hands with the man arrested for assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
While Simone considered the philosophy of non-violence a useful tactic at a point in the movement, she also realized, "the Ku Klux Klan weren't non-violent and neither were the police or the government when they were threatened."
When the movement died, like so many others she ran into personal problems, which included an attempt by the U.S. government to set her up on a tax evasion charge. Nonetheless, Simone continued to speak out against the ongoing racism of this society, but left the United States to live in Europe.
Nina Simone leaves behind a legacy of great music. And her autobiography, "I Put A Spell On You," is well worth a read as well.