Nina Simone, who died recently aged 70, was one of the most compelling of the many innovative musical figures that were thrown up by the US civil rights movement in the 1960s. Like many black musicians of the time she believed music had a clear political purpose. Contrary to many of her obituary notices, it was a belief she carried throughout her adult life, and her deeply soulful voice, theatricality and often playful approach to music was allied to an uncompromisingly public political commitment to human emancipation.
During the 1960s she was organisationally involved with the movement, knowing personally many of the leaders and actively engaging in the political debates of the time. On a series of best-selling albums, covering material from across the musical spectrum, she combined her classical training and gospel background with a profound respect for black American culture. Her own songs, such as ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, were consciously designed to reflect the needs of the movement, to inspire the listener into activity. Her autobiography ‘I Put a Spell on You’ is fascinating both for the insights it gives to the political debates within the movement at the time, and into the complex relationship between performance and political commitment.
Simone was born into a deeply religious African-American family in Tryon, North Carolina. One of eight children, her father was a gardener and her mother an ordained preacher. By the age of three, she was singing and playing regularly in church. Her perfect pitch and ability to quickly learn the piano led her mother to hope she would become the first successful black concert pianist in the US. She started formal piano tuition in classical music aged four, taking lessons from a white woman.
Her family’s religious principles discouraged her from too much involvement with the blues and jazz she heard on the radio. Age 17, she won a scholarship to New York’s Juilliard School of Music, which she supplemented by playing in bars to support herself through college.
In 1954, the symphony orchestras were still segragated, and there was no chance of her developing a career in classical music. Like many innovative black American musicians, segregation forced her out of the music she was trained to play, into the contradictory world of ‘entertainment’.
Her professional singing career started when a night club owner insisted that she either sang while she played piano, or lost her job. Simone’s early repertoire and main interest was commercial love songs, having her only top 20 hit with ‘I loves You Porgy’, from Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’.
As the civil rights movement intensified black musicians won more freedom to be explicitly political in their music. Though still performing others’ love songs, her own writing concentrated on a clear political purpose. As she explained in 1970, ‘the subject of love between men and women was not as important as getting our people to become completely unified…to see what they can do about getting their rights as human beings.’
Like many musicians at the time, Simone was drawn into active involvement. As the movement evolved, splits emerged as to the best way forward. Simone followed the arguments thrown up by the movement closely, which centred on the use of violence and separatism. As her autobiography makes clear, she was ‘intuitively’ drawn to Stokeley Carmichael’s separatist SNCC. But she questioned the long-term implications of the argument, ‘I didn’t believe there was any basic difference between the races…I realised that what I was fighting for was a new kind of society.’ Asked about the Black Panthers in 1970, she said, ‘God bless them. I’m so glad they existed.’
By the mid-1970s the movement was reaching a crisis. 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 had chronic 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 and Africa before settling in France.
The reissue in 1987 of ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, which she transformed into a celebration of women’s strength, gave her financial security, while her emotionally draining perfomances and often caustic comments to an increasingly white middle class audience won her a reputation as a ‘diva’.
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.