Nina Simone: artist and activist

October 4 2021, by Niamh Baillie-Strong

Nina Simone was one of the most prolific artists of her time. She possessed a repertoire spanning a large array of styles, from classical and gospel to jazz and folk, from Bernstein to Bach, Gershwin to George Harrison. She was not only a musician but also a notable figure in the civil rights movement of 20th century America and employed music as a vehicle in which to convey her struggles in 20th century America. Today, Simone is hailed as one of the greatest Jazz singers of all time sitting among the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Betty Carter; her lyrics are used as testaments to the civil unrest of the US in the 1960s.   

Simone was born on February 21st, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, the sixth child of a low-income family. From a young age Nina showed an affinity for the piano, learning her first song ‘God Be With You, Till We Meet Again,’ at the age of three. At the age of twelve Simone gave her first classical recital. Recounting the memory of the event as an adult, she said that her parents were forced to move to the back of the recital hall to make way for white people and she refused to play until they were seated at the front and that the event was a large factor to why she later involved herself with the civil rights movement. After graduating from school Simone spent the summer of 1950 studying under Carl Friedberg, a notable pianist and teacher at the Juilliard School, in preparation for an audition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Although she did not get in (which she suspected was due to racial prejudice) Nina devoted her time to music, getting a small gig at Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, New Jersey where she would both sing and play piano.  

In 1958 Simone recorded George Gershwin’s ‘I Love You, Porgy’ (from ‘Porgy and Bess’), which ended up being her only Billboard top 20 success in the United States; this acclaim was followed by her debut album ‘Little Girl Blue’ in February 1959. After this stream of success Simone was signed by the record company Coplix records and was given complete creative freedom over her public work. She used her commercial music as a way in which to make money and as such be able to continue in her classical endeavors. A notable example of how Simone’s love for classical music seeped into her work is one minute into her song ‘Love Me Or Leave Me’ in which contains a Bach-influenced fugue with subjects, counterpoint and motif development, all in the style of a jazz song.

In 1964 Simone began releasing music that challenged the American racial divide, at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining unprecedented traction and popular appeal across the country. This change of tack was largely down to her change in record distributors from Colpix to Dutch Philips Records, which gave her more creative freedom as Dutch Phillips Records was not an American company and as such did not feel the need to stay silent on such controversial topical issues. In Nina’s first album since her move to Philips, ‘Nina Simone In Concert’, she chose to touch on horrifying events that had happened in the African America community during a time of extreme violence. Simone’s song ‘Mississippi Goddam’ was her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that ended up killing four young black girls. Nina is quoted as calling the song a way to ‘throw ten bullets back at them.’ Some more of Simone’s most notable civil rights songs are ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’, ‘Images’, ‘Four Women’, ‘I wish I knew how it felt to be free’ and ‘Strange Fruit’. 

Nina was known to perform and speak at civil rights meetings, an example being the Selma to Montgomery marches. Unlike Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent approach Simone sided with black nationalism and Malcom X’s views. She believed that African Americans should form a separate state, although in her autobiography she stated she viewed all races as equal. 

Although Simone is known for her incredible career, she is also known due to her turbulent private life. Nina was known for no shows and walk outs from gigs, especially after moving away from the United States to Europe. During this time, she also developed a dependency on alcohol as well as worsening mental health. These events lead to her being diagnosed and medicated for schizophrenia. During this time the poet Maya Angelou even wrote ‘What happened, Miss Simone?’. This later became the title for both her biography and the 2016 documentary of her life.

Nina Simone was a whirlwind of energy who revolutionized Jazz music through the interpolation of her classical style; such combinations made her a distinctive voice in so many ways, both on and off the concert stage. A troubled personal life, the struggles of her upbringing and tribulations endured to gain such musical acclaim come together to make a figure whose voice made her notes and ideals so universal.

Niamh Baillie-Strong, L6

Further reading: