Nina Simone died in 2003, at age of 70. Unquestionably, she was one of the most compelling and ground-breaking musical figures coming from the United States. Nina highly believed that music had a strong political purpose. When we listen to Nina Simone, we cannot but notice her proud voice, engraved with the authority of an high priestess. In almost every song she is able to take us to the dimmer reaches of emotions, wandering from a bitter imperiousness to private torments.
She was born Eunice Kathleen Wymon at Tryon, North Carolina, on February 21 1933, the sixth of eight children who grew up in poverty; their father was a handyman. By the age of three she could play the piano by ear; it is said that she was discovered playing, note-perfect, “God be with you till we meet again“, in the key of F, on the family’s organ.
Nina Simone was not an instant success, but in 1959 her first album, “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, produced a gigantic hit in her version of Gershwin’s I Loves You Porgy. The triumph of albums such as “Wild Is The Wind” allowed her to assume a prominent position within the civil rights movement and she developed close relations with eminent figures of the time, such as Lorraine Hansberry, who she dedicated the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Touré. During this turbulent period, Nina Simone is recalled to say that “America was my Daddy and he got under my skin.” Gradually her sound deliberately assimilated a gospel edge and famous work of black, notably Langston Hughes’s “Backlash Blues”.
She felt that black politics accounted for circumstances she had partially understood since childhood – the different worlds, for instance, when she had crossed the tracks to visit her white piano teacher. She declared then, that while love songs had been her principal inspiration, there was a love that superseded it, the one that could bring her people together to secure their rights. “Mississippi Goddam” was an enraged reaction to the deaths of four children in the bombing of a Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1963.
Through the civil rights movement, Simone grew increasingly absorbed with African-American history, and a longstanding interest in Africa began, culminating in a close association with Liberia in West Africa. However by the mid-1970s the movement was reaching a crisis point. Many of its leaders had been killed, and the growth of a grassroots movement rooted in the working class failed to mature.
Despite eight best-selling albums, Nina Simone, as many other black artists, had lingering money problems due to unpaid royalties. Increasingly disillusioned with American politics, she drew inspiration from Third World struggles, left the US, and lived in Barbados, Liberia and Guinea-Conakry before settling in France.
In the late 80s, Nina Simone took exception to the agreed distribution of the royalties from “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, which had become a belated pop hit. An infamous incident Nina allegedly chased a record executive from a restaurant with a knife. Moving to Aix-en-Provence in 1995, she received a suspended sentence for wounding an unruly teenage neighbour with a shotgun.
Nina Simone left a wonderful legacy of music and song, and led an inspirational and political life, showing that great music comes from political commitment, not in spite of it.