A celebration calls for great music and as Black History Month begins, it is essential to recognize achievements by African Americans, especially those who have a central role in U.S. history like American singer, songwriter, musician and last but not least, civil rights activist Nina Simone.
I was probably in kindergarten when I first heard a song by Simone and I immediately fell in love with her voice and the tone of the music. As I grew older, I started to pay more attention to the lyrics in her songs and my admiration for her grew even more. Her music is very deep and it hits the core of my heart. It’s so hard to put into words the sensations I feel while listening to her music… It’s sure a turmoil of emotions, especially because her music relates to women in so many levels and helps you understand the hard truth about American history. Aside from enjoying her music, I also had the opportunity to attend the play “Simply Simone” which dived deep into her life as a young girl and her legacy as a musician of liberation and passion. This experience made me appreciate the period of time I live in today and it empowered me as a woman of color to lose fear when I need to speak out about anything I find unjust.
You might be thinking, “this artist sounds like an incredible human being, but tell me more!” Well to start off, Nina Simone’s original name is Eunice Kathleen Waymon and she was born on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. She started to play piano by ear at the age of 3 at the church where her parents were ministers. Later on, Eunice would study with a pianist, who tutored her about the classics like Beethoven and Chopin. When Eunice graduated at the top of her high school class, she received a grant to study at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, but she eventually had to leave the school due to financial issues. When she returned home, she was able to save money and applied for enrollment at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but was denied admittance. She claims the rejection was because of her African American identity.
In response to the rejection, she started to put her interests in playing jazz and blues in Atlantic City clubs. Although she had no experience as a vocalist, the bar owner told her she would have to sing in order to keep her job and as she played along with that request, she earned her stage name that we know her by. “Nina” meaning little one in spanish and “Simone” was inspired by the French actress Simone Signoret.
It was not until the 1960s that Simone began to take her stand of activism by writing songs that protested against racism. She became friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X during this time and followed their examples. One of her most famous songs that was banned during this time was “Mississippi Goddam.” Simone wrote this song to express her anger about the country’s racial unrest after the assassination of Medgar Evers, a Mississippi born activist, and the Birmingham Baptist church bombing by the Ku Klux Klan’s that killed four young African American girls.
Here’s an extract of the song “Mississippi Goddam” :
“Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer”