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How did Nina Simone help the world?
Mood of the Post: Lauren Hill and band killing it on Nina Simone’s tribute Feeling Good.
While everybody in Brazil was
criticizing the hypocrisy talking about the Black Awareness Day this week, I kept thinking about Nina Simone. I couldn’t avoid linking both as she was a very active intellectual member and a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement next to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others. To the point where she paused prioritizing her life and career on her actions.
I always loved Nina’s voice and stage presence, but it wasn’t until watching a beautiful and touching documentary that focus heavily on her activist years, that I grew to respect this brave and enormously talented woman. “What Happened Ms. Simone” was directed by Liz Garbus. The film opened the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and combines previously unreleased archival footage, diary entries and interviews with Nina’s daughter and friends. It gets its title from a Maya Angelou poem and fits perfectly to those days when Nina was settling in Paris, singing in small Jazz bars, for a couple hundred dollars per night, and trying to resume her career after abandoning it 22 years before. Nina Simone fled the United States, in September 1970, a country she believed she no-longer belonged, and went to live in Mother Africa for several years.
“But what happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?”
Nina Simone was born in North California, to a preacher, and trained from a young age on classic piano. She had a goal – to be the first black woman classical pianist in America. She wanted to play Bach at the Carneggie Hall. As a teenager she was denied a scholarship to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, despite a well-received audition, because she was black.
To fund her studies then, she started to play Jazz piano in a small piano bar in Atlantic City. But her boss wanted her to sing – how else could she entertain people? It wasn’t long until she realized the strength of her voice. And soon after the whole world too recognized Nina Simone’s talent, elevating her to one of the biggest stage stars of her time.
Everything was perfect: Nina’s dreams were coming true one by one. She was a big star, famous, rich, and she finally played at the Carnegie Hall in New York City. Just not as a classical pianist. Much better. Like the amazing Nina Simone.
Though things were not so dreamy in the real world. Those were war times, with the american fight in Vietnam serving as background to an equally important internal problem: segregation racism.
Before the American Civil War, almost four million African-Americans were denied freedom from bondage, only white men of property could vote, and the Naturalization Act of 1790 limited U.S. citizenship to whites only.
“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” – Nina Simone
Nina started using her music, lyrics and influence to say all the unsaid things.
“Mississippi Goddamn” was her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Alabama that killed four black children. It definitely wasn’t a time when people were used to racism issues being openly addressed by artists. The song was banned in several states, and after tones and tones of records being delivered back and destroyed, her career was never the same again.
From then on, a civil rights message was standard in Nina’s recording repertoire, becoming a part of her live performances. She performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings.
Great art doesn’t require great suffering, but a lot of great art was created in the presence of it
Thing is that, there is just something more to revolutions that are spoken. It is really valid to fight for beliefs. But without a certain balance, it all becomes too much. Much later, in the 80’s, Nina was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Perhaps it was one of the sources of her intensity. Facts are, she lost her balance. And got very disappointed. As she said in an interview back in Paris, In the 1990s, when asked how far the civil-rights movement had come:
“There aren’t any civil rights,” Nina Simone said.
“What do you mean?” the interviewer asked.
“There is no reason to sing those songs, nothing is happening,” she replied. “There’s no civil-rights movement. Everybody’s gone.”
A little pause for my favorite Nina Simone’s piece ever:
The African-American Civil Movement slowly and mostly after The Black Power Movement and Martin Luther King’s death in 1968 lost its strength, and till these days The United States and the world suffer with the veiled racism and open violence. But how worst could it had been without all those people who dedicated their lives for a freer world?
As for Nina Simone, she spent her last decades in a much lower profile, living in some of Europe’s major cities, playing regularly at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, choosing a material retaining its eclecticism, spiritual songs and entertaining the audience by recounting humorous anecdotes related to her career and music.
Nina Simone fought for a cause she believed in. She believed that there is not other way of living when changes must happen. And what’s for sure, she always did what she felt doing.
Change your thoughts and you will change the world. – Anonymous
And… She even died whenever she wanted, apparently. Just two days after she was awarded an honorary degree by the Curtis Institute, the music school that had refused to admit her as a student at the beginning of her career. There you go, Nina.