Nina Simone

Singer – Songwriter – Civil Rights activist

“An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. That to me is my duty, and at this crucial time in our lives when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved”. “Young people, Black and White, know this. That’s why they’re so involved in politics. We will shape and mould this country; I will not be moulded and shaped at all anymore.”

Nina Simone, nicknamed the ‘High Priestess of Soul’, was an American jazz and blues musician of the late twentieth century. Born Eunice Waymon on 21st February 1933 (and lived until 2003), she moved to New York and then Philadelphia to study classical piano, before transforming herself into a nightclub performer and jazz vocalist. While she is mostly known for her illustrious musical career, she also became an outspoken advocate for civil rights. Simone used her music to discuss her views and her rage at the injustice of racism and segregation.

Many people know Simone’s music without knowing her politics, it was unique and had a magic of its own even if you are not political, but she would probably tell that sitting on the fence quietly minding your own business is “not good enough”, and she would never say that in a whisper.

Throughout her adult life her activist friends from politics, to the arts and those she was comfortable with, reads like the who’s who of Civil Rights including Miriam Makeba, Malcolm X, Lorraine Hansberry, Stokely Charmichael,  James Baldwin, Martin Luther King the list is near endless.

Nina Simone and James Baldwin

Eunice Waymon’s (Nina) Civil Rights activities began at a young age. At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Note: She chose the name Simone after the French actress Simone Signoret to hide from her mother the fact that she was playing the Devils Music (Jazz) at concerts.

In 1964 Simone released one of her most powerful protest songs Mississippi Goddam (see below), a musical response to the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four Black girls. Composed in less than an hour, it is a song that expresses her deep rage, and fury over these events. It also served as a defiant challenge to the widely held belief that race relations could change gradually.

Banned throughout the South, Mississippi Goddam marked the beginning of a Civil Rights message in her recorded repertoire and live performances. Then there were those who protested the protest tune. She was sent letters that they had actually broken up this recording and sent it back to the recording company, telling them it was in ‘bad taste’.

As her music increasingly challenged Jim Crow Laws, Simone became more active in Civil Rights movements. She performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings and participated in the marches from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights, supported the separatist positions of the Black Nationalist Movement, and became a vocal supporter of Malcolm X and advocated violent revolution rather than Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach. She hoped that African Americans could use armed combat to form a separate state, though she wrote in her autobiography that she and her family regarded all races as equal.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn’t always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on, even after the height of the sixties Civil Rights Movement. It was often said of her at the time she was difficult to deal with, some of her mood swing were explained when in 1980 it was discovered she suffered from Bi-Polar syndrome, the rest was anger at a racist society.

Eventually, the USA’s insufficient response to racism and their continued involvement in Vietnam left Simone disillusioned. New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home, but in 1970, she stopped using the USA as her home, eventually settling in France. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

Over 60 years later, Nina Simone’s protest songs remain relevant and uncompromising statements in the face of a United States that still has not grappled with its history of racism, segregation and continued racial inequalities.

Listen to Nina Simone

Mississippi Goddam lyrics by Nina Simone

The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddamn
And I mean every word of it
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air
I can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
This is a show tune
But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet
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
Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying “Go slow”
But that’s just the trouble
“Do it slow”
Washing the windows
“Do it slow”
Picking the cotton
“Do it slow”
You’re just plain rotten
“Do it slow”
You’re too damn lazy
“Do it slow”
The thinking’s crazy
“Do it slow”
Where am I going?
What am I doing?
I don’t know
I don’t know
Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
I bet you thought I was kiddin’ didn’t you
Picket lines
School boycotts
They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister, my brother, my people, and me
Yes, you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie
Oh, but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying “Go slow”
“Go slow”
But that’s just the trouble
“Do it slow”
“Do it slow”
Mass participation
“Do it slow”
“Do it slow”
Do things gradually
“Do it slow”
But bring more tragedy
“Do it slow”
Why don’t you see it?
Why don’t you feel it?
I don’t know
I don’t know
You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam, that’s it

Read More

Nina Simone and me: An artist and activist revisted CNN Entertainment April 21st 2017


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