“You have to learn to get up from the table when love is no longer being served.”
Feminist writer Germaine Greer was quoted saying, “Every generation has to discover Nina Simone. She is evidence that female genius is real.” I could not agree more with this statement. If you are not familiar with Nina Simone I recommend starting with listening to her song, "I Put A Spell On You". Her voice is hauntingly beautiful, soulfully sultry and absolutely mesmerizing.
Nina was born February 21, 1933 as Eunice Kathleen Waymon, the sixth out of eight kids to a poor family in North Carolina. Nina began playing the piano between ages 3 and 4 and by age 12 she gave her first concert, a classical recital. This concert set a precedent for Nina’s life, her parents were asked to move from their seats in the front row to the back of the hall for a white couple. Nina refused to play until her parents were moved back to the front. After high school Nina spent the summer of 1950 at Juilliard in hopes of attending Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She was rejected, she believed because of the color of her skin, and heartbroken, her entire family had anticipated her acceptance and moved to Philadelphia to be close to her. She began taking private lessons and accepted a job performing at Midtown Bar & Grill in New Jersey. It is during this time she became Nina Simone, a name she could perform behind without her mother discovering her since she would not approve of the “devil music.”
Nina recorded “I Love You, Porgy” by George Gershwin, this became her only Billboard top 20 hit and released her first album Little Girl Blue. With the success of her album she was offered a contract with Colpix Records and was given total creative control though she was recording pop songs and was indifferent to this and remained so throughout her career. In 1961 she married Andrew Stroud, a New York police officer who would eventually become her manager, the father of her daughter and an emotional and physical abuser. In 1964 Nina changed record labels and changed her sound. She had always tried to sing songs that reflected her African American heritage but with the new label she started directly addressing racial inequality, "Mississippi Goddam". This song was in direct response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed 4 young black girls and partially blinded another. She called this song her first civil rights song, it was boycotted in some southern states and copies of the single were smashed and returned to the record label.
“You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.”
Nina’s activism wasn’t just for civil rights but for black women as well, the song "Four Women" about Eurocentric beauty standards black women were expected to live up to. She wrote the song to inspire black women to define beauty by their own standards. The song details the varying shades of skin color and the way it affects not only the woman but the way in which the world sees her and treats her. Nina lived a vocal and present life, not bending to the will of others and she passed away from breast cancer in 2003 but shortly before she received an honorary degree from Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. The place that had given her so much doubt in her younger days, her life had come full circle in a way. Nina used her voice as the voice of the silent, the voice of the oppressed and the voice of the community. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself, her family or against the civil atrocities that were happening across the country. She used her music to make a difference and Nina Simone is a woman we need to still be singing. The world may have changed since her activism began but it is not perfect, so I agree that every generation needs to discover Nina Simone.
Written by: Alicia Whitcome