After a painful week of grief, outrage and racial division in the US, we look for voices to express our anguish.
No one could better fill that role than the extraordinary, unforgettable Nina Simone — the singer, songwriter, pianist, and civil rights activist who use her voice to express outrage against racism. She passed away in 2003.
Her music was the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. In challenging moments like these, her voice — angry, outraged, defiant — is a voice for our times.
Simone saw herself as a lifelong victim of racism. As she told the BBC in 1999, “It’s in the very fabric of American society.”
In challenging times like these, her voice — angry, outraged, defiant — is a voice for our times.
She had extraordinary music gifts. She studied at Juilliard and aspired to be a concert pianist but faced barriers, and instead wound up playing the piano in an Atlantic City supper club. The owner demanded that she also sing — her deep contralto voice had a distinctive, plaintive quality.
It was in Atlantic City that Simone first sang the song “I Loves You Porgy,” from the musical Porgy and Bess. An agent heard her and took her to New York City, where she made her first record. Over her lifetime, she recorded more than 40 albums in a range of musical stylings drawn from classical, pop and gospel.
In an interview shown in the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus, Simone talked about the expressive variability of her voice:
“What I was interested in was conveying an emotional message, which means using everything you’ve got inside you, sometimes to barely make a note, or if you have to strain to sing — you sing. So sometimes I sound like gravel, and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.“
But it was the use of her voice as a critic of racism that distinguished her role in American history. She credited her friend, the author and civil rights campaigner Lorraine Hansberry — with awakening her social and political consciousness.
During the Civil Rights era, Simone marched with Martin Luther King at Selma, at the March on Washington, and at Miles College. She also befriended Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael and Langston Hughes.
“Mississippi Goddam” was the first protest song she wrote. It was raw and searing, written in furious response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham that killed four little girls.
In her BBC interview, she spoke about the rage that fueled her political activism: “Anger has its place,” she said. “Anger has fire — and fire moves things.”
Simone also spoke out, holding nothing back — in speeches and informal talks before and during her musical performances — on racial prejudice and the punishing standards of beauty that oppressed black women.
“Anger has its place. Anger has fire — and fire moves things.”
Here’s a short talk filled with anger toward white culture from a 1969 performance at Morehouse College.
As Claudia Roth Pierpont noted in a 2014 New Yorker profile, Simone would sometimes end her performances by inviting the audience to join her singing “We Shall Overcome” — “although she did not believe her country had overcome nearly enough.”
There’s a direct link between the civil rights protests of the 1960s and what’s happening today. Nina Simone’s music is a profound reflection of her time and ours — when our country has so much more to overcome.
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