Socialist Worker

Nina Simone - Angry, gifted and black

Issue No. 1849

NINA SIMONE, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, died two weeks ago at the age of 70. One of her best known songs, 'My Baby Just Cares For Me', was a hit in 1987 after it was used to advertise Chanel No 5 perfume.

Early in her career the commercial exploitation of her work by rip-off recording companies made her angry. She said, 'I had to find out what kind of revolutionary I was... I was rich and famous but I wasn't free. Most of the decisions I made were taken in consultation with my manager, accountant, lawyer and record company. I couldn't do what I wanted.'

Struggle had always been part of Nina Simone's life. She was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, the sixth of seven children in a poor family. She started out as a classical pianist, but in 1954 family poverty led to her taking a job in an Atlantic City nightclub.

The blatant racism of the Jim Crow South was very clearly visible to her at an early age. At her first performance, when she was just ten, her parents had to move from the front row to make way for whites. In the 1960s she was deeply inspired by the movement for black civil rights. She was friends with activists like the Black Panthers Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael.

She wrote the song 'Mississippi Goddam' in 1963 when four black children were killed in a Ku Klux Klan bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. This song is a bitter accusation against racism in the US, with lines such as 'Oh but this whole country is full of lies/ You're all gonna die and die like flies'.

She performed 'Mississippi Goddam' at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March for black civil rights in front of 40,000 people. The song 'To Be Young, Gifted and Black' was adopted as the black national anthem.

She said, 'I was always a politician from the day the civil rights people chose me as their protest singer.'

She supported the most militant tactics in the struggle against racism, saying, 'I was never non-violent. I just followed Dr Martin Luther King because he was the popular one. But my sympathies were with Malcolm X. I believed in taking gun for gun and totin' and totin'! If I hadn't been a musician, I probably would be dead by now.'

After 1974 she left the US and lived in Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland, England and the Netherlands before settling in the south of France. In 1998 Simone said she left the US because of racism.

Nina was a hugely talented musician. Her voice was husky, powerful and sensual, and quite unique. It crossed the boundaries of blues, jazz, soul and gospel. She deliberately stayed outside of any category and was hugely versatile, performing music ranging from 'Pirate Jenny' from The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht to 'I Loves You Porgy' by Ira Gershwin.

Nina was often described as 'difficult' - a catchphrase for women who were tough and stood their ground. Right up to the end she was performing songs about social justice, and personal and social freedom.

Her death will sadden her fans, but her vast musical and political legacy that touched millions across the globe will live on.
Jane Hardy

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Article information

Sat 3 May 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1849
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