Eunice Waymon (1933-2003), better known by her stage name Nina Simone, was an American musician who reached the height of her powers in the 1960s as a singer for the civil rights movement.
She never lived to see “Nina” (2016), a film where she is played by Zoe Saldana in blackface – but she would not have been surprised. It is completely in character for the US, a country that treated her worse than any other, treating her like dirt. In fact, it treats all Black people like dirt, it is just that she had the money to live wherever she wanted. Like James Baldwin, she lived her last years in the south of France.
The day that crystallized for her what it meant to be Black in the US was September 15th 1963: the day the Klan bombed a church, killing four Black girls.
She wanted to kill as many White people as she could, but her husband talked her down and said she should do what she does best: put her feelings into her music. An hour later she had “Mississippi Goddam”. Up till then she was not a protest singer, though people thought of her as one because she spoke her mind no matter what it did to record sales.
In the middle 1960s she thought a new day was coming to the US – you hear that in “Feeling Good” (1965). But by the 1970s, the Black fight for equal rights had been crushed. It was hard for people like her to get record deals in the US – unless they were willing to keep their mouth shut and play disco music for White people. She left the country, living in Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland and France.
In the 1940s as a girl in the mountains of North Carolina she played gospel music on the piano at church. Her piano teacher gave her a deep love of Bach. Eunice Waymon worked to become the world’s first Black concert pianist!
She was taught not to think too much about race but to just keep her head down and try her hardest. But the hardest from one of country’s greatest musical talents was not good enough: the Curtis Institute, a stepping stone to becoming a concert pianist, would not accept her as a student – almost certainly because she was Black. She wound up going into pop music instead.
By the late 1950s, she was a hit with the bohemian crowd in Greenwich Village in New York. They thought of her as a jazz musician because of her skin colour, but in fact she was applying Bach and her gospel roots to pop music. In time she was famous not just in the US, but in Europe and Africa too.
Her great talent was a blessing and a curse. It made her rich and famous, after a fashion, but it also robbed her of her true love, her high school sweetheart, and from being a true mother to her daughter.
– Abagond, 2016.
Sources: Mainly Laura Mvula (BBC, 2015) and “I Put a Spell On You” (1991) by Nina Simone.
- 1958: Nina Simone: Little Girl Blue
- 1958: Nina Simone: My Baby Just Cares for Me
- 1963: Nina Simone: Mississippi Goddam – written after The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing
- 1965: Nina Simone: Feeling Good
- 1969: Nina Simone: To Be Young, Gifted and Black – written in memory of her friend Lorraine Hansberry
- Trailer: Nina
- James Baldwin