The Black Swan has drifted to my shores, delivering the passions, the pain, the grandeur, the celebration of all the twists and turns of life, of Nina Simone, The High Priestess of Soul.
I’ve so enjoyed reading about Nina’s life, listening to her music and feeling her passions and pains like she’s standing right next to me. It’s also been interesting just considering what to say about someone’s life that’s had such a colorful experience – so much diversity. There’s the linear timeline – birth, upbringing, discovery, success, failure, rebirth, reconciliation, death. Yet, like music, life has harmonies. The inlets of emotion and depth that one can dive into for hours and days, recalling all the subtleties, the poetic silences, the raging seas of turmoil, the satisfaction of forgiveness, of laying the stories to rest. I found that I couldn’t just go about this report with so much focus around the facts – there is so much more. For formalities, some linearities proceed, but before I kick that off, a word of depth…
Nina, black swan, The High Priestess of Soul, you were lover, sister of coveted skill, raging bitch, graceful midnight dancer, tenacious voyager, pesky school girl, gifted and black minority, bipolar and convoluted woman, a human with faults like anyone, a soul with good intentions, a bringer of strange fruits that would change the world forever with your relentless passion to be you to the fullest. You let no one get in your way as you walked through the obstacles in life as though they were themselves the doorways to your success. Your pounding heart beat still courses in the streets, waters and fields of America, of France, of the UK, of Africa, of Switzerland, of the Netherlands. You’ve got Life, and your gift of Life to the human race lives on – a little piece of you in us all. Thank you for bringing your piece of Heaven to us here on Earth.
“I had spent many years pursuing excellence, because that is what classical music is all about… Now it was dedicated to freedom, and that was far more important.”
Birth Name: Eunice Kathleen Waymon
February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003
Tryon, North Carolina
Simone recorded over 40 live and studio albums, the greatest body of her work being released between 1958 (when she made her debut with Little Girl Blue) and 1974. Songs she is best known for include “My Baby Just Cares for Me”, “I Put a Spell on You”, “Four Women”, “I Loves You Porgy”, “Feeling Good”, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, “Sinnerman”, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, “Mississippi Goddamn”, “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” and “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”. Her music and message made a strong and lasting impact on culture, illustrated by the numerous contemporary artists who cite her as an important influence. Many hip hop and other modern artists sample and remix Simone’s rhythms and beats on their tracks. In particular, Talib Kweli and Mos Def routinely pay tribute to her outstanding and soulful musical style. Many of her songs are featured on motion picture soundtracks, as well as in videogames, commercials and TV series.
Born to Mary Kate Waymon (a strict Methodist minister who lived into her late 90s) and John Divine Waymon (a handyman and barber) along with eight other siblings. She began playing piano at age 3, and had her debut concert at age 12. During this performance her parents were asked to move to the back of the theatre (which they did) to make room for a white family. Eunice stood her ground, insisting that she would not play until her parents were moved back to the front – hence began her activity in the civil rights movement.
Mrs. Waymon worked as a maid and her employer saw Eunice’s talent and created a local fund in her name. She moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and tested at a local college, passing admirably with many acknowledging her talent, yet she failed to be approved for a scholarship. She pressed the examiner and his flat response was, “because your black.” This is where her real passion for the Civil Rights Movement began, and she did not let this experience stop her from pursuing excellence. She taught piano lessons and accompanied singers to fund her own study as a classical music pianist at New York City’s Julliard School of Music.
“When I was studying… there weren’t any black concert pianists. My choices were intuitive, and I had the technique to do it. People have heard my music and heard the classic in it, so I have become known as a black classical pianist.”
“Once I understood Bach’s music, I wanted to be a concert pianist. Bach made me dedicate my life to music, and it was that teacher who introduced me to his world.”
She continued to fund her education by playing at a bar in Atlantic City. The owner explained that she would have to sing as well as play the piano. This (1954) is when she took on the name “Nina Simone”, because she didn’t want her mother to know she was playing “the devil’s music.” Nina (meaning little girl in Spanish) was a nickname a boyfriend had given her, and Simone was after a French (incidentally white) actress Simone Signoret. I find this name change to be quite ironic as it could be interpreted as little white girl. Maybe this was an early sign of her bipolar disorder, as she later protested:
“I do not believe in mixing of the races. You can quote me. I don’t believe in it, and I never have. I’ve never changed. I’ve never changed my hair. I’ve never changed my color, I have always been proud of myself, and my fans are proud of me for remaining the way I’ve always been. I married a white man one time, but he was a creep.”
She did stay quite true to remaining authentically her self as a strong black woman, save that she did change one big thing about her self – her name – to hide from her mother, and, as mentioned, ironically chose the name of a white woman. Then later in her autobiography, she said she was not a racist, and stated that her family, and indeed herself, regarded all races equal.
Nina began to play and sing a mixture of jazz, blues and classical music and began to create a small yet loyal fan base. After playing in various small clubs, she recorded a rendition of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” in 1958 and performed it as a favor to a friend. It became her only Billboard to 40 success in the US, and her debut album Little Girl Blue soon followed, which she would never benefit financially from. After that, Simone signed a contract with Colpix Records, which relinquished all creative control, including the choice of material that would be recorded, to her. Simone was bold with her demand for control over her music because she was indifferent about having a recording contract and had just been playing popular songs to make money for continuing her studies up to that point. She changed record companies again in 1964 to the Dutch Philips which opened up her content to openly address racial inequality with songs like “Mississippi Goddam”, which was a response to the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama that included the death of four black children as well as the assassination of Medgar Evers. This track was banned in certain southern states, as it was a bitter and furious accusation. The strong emotional approach of this song and the others on her first Philips record (“Nina Simone In Concert”), would become another characteristic in her art. She uses her voice with its remarkable timbre and her careful piano playing as means to achieve her artistic aim: to express love, hate, sorrow, joy, loneliness – the whole range of human emotions – through music, in a direct way.
The brilliance in Mississippi Goddam lies in the way she initially destabilized the immediate reception of the song, by placing the song’s lyrics on top of a swinging show tune beat. It was as if the song was performed to the music of the “Sambo Shuffle” that moment when Sambo decides to stop “shuckin’ and jivin’” and actually starts to speak “truth to power.” The audience is still laughing with Simone after she sings the opening chorus (“Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee makes me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi, Goddam”) and states that “this is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” But this is where the song, and its reception, changes. Simone rips into America’s race policy, simmering as she sings “don’t tell me, I tell you / Me and my people just about due / I’ve been there so I know / You keep on saying go slow,” a reference, in part, to the Brown vs. The Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas) Supreme Court decision which urged the desegregation of American public schools with the oxymoronic notion of “all deliberate speed”. The audience is dead silent after the verse, a fact that Simone acknowledges, when she says to the crowd “bet you thought I was kidding”. The moment seemed to only fuel the fury brewing underneath Simone’s performance up to that point. When she starts singing “This whole country is full of lies / You all gonna die, die like flies,” it is clear that she is in a space, in opposition to the non-violent stance of the mainstream Civil Right Movement, and one that portended the violence in American cities like Los Angeles (Watts), Newark and Detroit in the coming years. Nina, like most black people of the time, was pissed off. In this context the metaphors of the song become clear: the narrator is not merely a pirate spy; she’s a black everywoman, oppressed and resentful and ready to strike back against her oppressors. “The black freighter is the revolution to come” and the revolution Simone has in mind will not be a bloodless one. “I ain’t ’bout to be non-violent, honey!” she says in one recorded concert, and the whole audience laughs and claps with her.
“With the exception of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit,’ Ms. Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ ranks as one of the most incendiary songs every recorded by a black artist in the United States (though if thinking across the Afropolitan landscape, we’d of course have to mention Fela Kuti and Robert Nesta Marley). And not to discount the work of artists like Chuck D or Paris, but neither was going to be physically lynched or murdered for recording ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ or ‘Bush Killa.’ The threats to Ms. Simone’s body, spirit and livelihood were real as she told the American public that ‘I hope you die, die like flies.’ in response to their failure to come to grips with the so-called race question.”
From then on a civil rights message was standard in Simone’s recording repertoire where it had already become a part of her live performances. Simone performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings, such as at the Selma to Montgomery marches. She covered Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, a song about the lynching of black men in the South, and sang the W. Cuney poem Images on “Let It All Out” (1966), about the absence of pride in the African-American woman. Although Nina was called “High Priestess of Soul” and was respected by fans and critics as a mysterious, almost religious figure, she was often misunderstood as well. When she wrote Four Women in 1966 (on Wild Is the Wind ), a bitter lament of four black women whose circumstances and outlook are related to subtle gradations in skin color, the song was banned on Philadelphia and new York radio stations because “it was insulting to black people”. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is a song written by Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell and Sol Marcus for Nina, who first recorded it in 1964.
Mark Anthony Neal
“Baby, you understand me now if sometimes I get a little mad
Don’t you know no one alive can always be an angel?
When things go wrong, you see some bad.
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.
Oh lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood!”
Simone moved from Philips to RCA Victor during 1967. She sang “Backlash Blues”, written by her friend Langston Hughes on her first RCA album, Nina Simone Sings The Blues (1967). On Silk & Soul (1967) she recorded Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” and “Turning Point”. The album Nuff Said (1968) contains live recordings from the Westbury Music Fair, April 7, 1968, three days after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., She dedicated the whole performance to him and sang “Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)”, a song written by her bass player directly after the news of King’s death had reached them.
Simone left the United States during September 1970. She flew to Barbados, expecting her husband and manager, Andrew Stroud, to communicate with her when she had to perform again. However, Stroud interpreted Simone’s sudden disappearance (and the fact that she had left behind her wedding ring) as a cue for a divorce. As her manager, Stroud was also in charge of Simone’s income. This meant that after their separation Simone did not have any knowledge about how her business was managed and what she was actually worth. Upon returning to the United States, she also learned that she was wanted for unpaid taxes, causing her to go back to Barbados again to evade the authorities and prosecution. Simone stayed in Barbados for quite some time, and had a lengthy affair with the Prime Minister, Errol Barrow. A close friend, singer Miriam Makeba, persuaded her to go to Liberia. After that she lived in Switzerland and the Netherlands.
“Greed has driven the world crazy. And I think I’m lucky that I have a place over here that I can call home.”
“I think the rich will eventually have to cave in too, because the economic situation around the world is not gonna tolerate the United States being on top forever.”
On Human Kindness Day 1974 in Washington DC more than 10,000 people paid tribute to Simone. She recorded her last album for RCA Records, It Is Finished, during the same year. It was not until 1978 that Simone was persuaded by CTI Records owner Creed Taylor to record another album, Baltimore. While not a commercial success, the album did get good reviews and marked a quiet artistic renaissance in Simone’s recording output. Her choice of material retained its eclecticism, ranging from spiritual songs to ‘Hall & Oates’ and ‘Rich Girl’. Four years later Simone recorded “Fodder On My Wings” on a French label. During the 1980s Simone performed regularly at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London, where the album Live at Ronnie Scott’s was recorded during 1984. Though her on-stage style could be somewhat haughty and aloof, in later years Simone particularly seemed to enjoy engaging her audiences by recounting humorous anecdotes related to her career and music and soliciting requests. In 1987, the original 1958 recording of My Baby Just Cares For Me was used in an advert for Chanel No. 5 perfume in the UK. This led to a re-release which stormed to number 5 in the UK singles chart giving her a brief surge in popularity in the UK. Her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, was published during 1992 and she recorded her last album, A Single Woman, in 1993.
During 1993 Simone settled near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France. On July 24, 1998 Nina Simone was a special guest at Nelson Mandela’s 80th Birthday Party. On October 7, 1999 she received a Lifetime Achievement in Music Award in Dublin. Only two days before her death, Simone was awarded an honorary diploma by the Curtis Institute, the school that had turned her down at the start of her career. She had been ill with breast cancer for several years before she died in her sleep at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, Bouches-du-RhÃ´ne on April 21, 2003. Her funeral service was attended by singers Miriam Makeba and Patti Labelle, poet Sonia Sanchez, actor Ossie Davis and hundreds of others. Elton John sent a floral tribute with the message “We were the greatest and I love you”. Simone’s ashes were scattered in several African countries. She left a daughter, Lisa Celeste, now an actress/singer who took on the stage name Simone who has appeared on Broadway in Aida.
“I try to swim every damn day I can, and I’ve learned to scuba dive and snorkel. My first love is the sea and water, not music. Music is second.”
Nina Simone played a particular role for our culture and for our race as humans that no one else could play. I think her bipolar disorder and her violent tendencies are symptoms of the overall disease that a society that is bent on greed and control has produced. With that in mind, her struggle to stay authentic to her passionate, creative, loving expression for her human race placed against great opposition, hatred, deceit, murder and rape against her ethnicity is quite understandable. As far as how the schism of racism has evolved over the decades, eventually people will realize that we are all one human race, one human family, and that we can honor our differences and simultaneously live side by side in harmony, and that it is absurd to even consider being violent towards your own family. Part of that evolution is the end of victim consciousness. When both ethnicities of European and African decent stop seeing themselves or each other as victims (or perpetrators) then we will fully leave racism behind us. As long as “black” people (or “white” people) continue to think that they are (or have been) victims, then they simply will be and they will find perpetrators to match their mentality. So, let the empowerment of our human race come forth, that we may rise from the illusion that any of us are lesser or greater than the other, that any of us deserve or need to be controlled or dominated by another, and that we realize that it is through celebrating the individuality of our human expression that we become a healthier, stronger and more vital Human Race to live long lives and prosper in abundance together on this beautiful planet, Earth.
“There’s no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.”
“Slavery has never been abolished from America’s way of thinking.”
“Jazz is not just music, it’s a way of life, it’s a way of being, a way of thinking. . . . the new inventive phrases we make up to describe things — all that to me is jazz just as much as the music we play.”