Remembering Nina Simone as a Siren and Powerful Civil Rights Activist
Today marks the birthday of Eunice Kathleen Waymon, otherwise known as Nina Simone. The North Carolina-born singer, songwriter and composer, whose voice had the ability to silence rooms with performances to shake them, died in 2003 at age 70. She began singing early on in her church choir, but aspired to be a concert pianist, with Johann Sebastian Bach as her first influence. Her unique style evolved into a beautiful blend of classical, jazz, blues, R&B, and pop.
As her career progressed she began using music as a vehicle for social commentary and change, becoming a prominent civil rights activist. One of the earliest examples of this came after the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four black girls. In response, she wrote "Mississippi Goddam"—which was boycotted in some southern states—where she sings "All I want is equality for my sister my brother my people and me."
But using music as a soap box wasn't an easy choice, as she once wrote, “Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning. And until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me, I had musical problems as well. How can you take the memory of a man like [Civil Rights activist] Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate. But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.”
In her live performances and following albums, she made it a point to mention the movement, like in "Backlash Blues," (written by Langston Hughes) where she starts, “You give me second class houses / And second class schools / Do you think all colored folks / Are just second class fools?” and powerfully goes on: “But the World is Big / Big and Bright and Round / And it’s full of folks like me / Who are Black, Yellow, Beige and Brown…I’m gonna leave you / With the backlash blues. You’re the one will have the blues not me / Just wait and see.”
Maybe the best way to celebrate Simone's legacy today is to listen to lyrics—to her truth—to see what we can still learn from her, ten years after her death.