The Music and Politics of Nina Simone

James Maycock
Independent, 10 November1999

This was published to coincide with the release of the compilation Stand Up And Be Counted; Soul, Funk And Jazz From A Revolutionary Era, Vol.1 which included her song, 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free'.

4th APRIL, 1968. As the news of Martin Luther King’s murder in Memphis zigzagged across America, the fury and frustration of black Americans erupted in over 100 cities. That very night, James Brown’s performance at the Boston Garden was televised to tempt rioters back into their homes. Three days later, on 7th April - the national day of mourning - Nina Simone performed on Long Island. In a soft, low voice she confided in her audience, "I hope we can give you something, whatever it is that you need tonight." During the concert, she performed 'Why? The King Of Love Is Dead', commenting, "We can’t afford any more losses." She added, "They’re killing us one by one." In the following, more extrovert song, 'Mississippi Goddam', she quipped, chuckling, "I ain’t about to be non-violent, honey!"

That night Nina Simone had anticipated - as she had throughout the 1960’s - the next stage in the ongoing Afro-American struggle for equal rights. In retrospect, she admitted that even by 1966, "I was through with turning the other cheek, it was time for some Old Testament justice." Following Dr. King’s death in ‘68, she sensed, "The thing that died along with Martin in Memphis was non-violence, we all knew that." The late 1960’s was definitely a period where Martin Luther King’s pacifist beliefs were increasingly challenged by the more militant politics of the Black Panther Party For Self-Defence and other similar factions, who vowed to protect themselves from racism, as Malcolm X controversially stated, "by any means necessary." Although the line between justifiable self-defence and outright revenge became increasingly indistinct.

H.Rap Brown, a brief member of the Black Panthers who famously remarked, "violence is American as cherry pie," described Nina Simone as "the singer of the black revolution." A budding poet and songwriter called Gil Scott-Heron also eulogised her in the sleevenotes to his 1970 debut album, declaring she was "black before it was fashionable to be black." Such praise resulted from her explicitly tackling racial issues head-on in her songs during the early and mid-'60s when many other black musicians were often, understandably, nervous of doing that. Her impressive devotion to the '60s civil rights cause, though, was the outcome of a sequence of progressively distressing jolts she experienced from her youth up to the outset of the 1960’s.

Nina’s childhood was not as disturbing as Malcolm X’s, or indeed Ike Turner’s, both of whom lost parents at the hands of racists. In fact, she was raised in Tyron, a small town in North Carolina, where she remembers, "relations between the black and white communities were always cordial." Some of its white citizens actually contributed financially to her musical education. But it was at a piano recital in front of her sponsors that she witnessed the prejudice simmering in the shadows of the town’s benign facade. Her proud parents, sitting expectantly in the front row were ordered to move by an anonymous white family. The 11 year-old Nina yelled out she wouldn’t perform until her parents were returned to their original seats. Some white members of the audience just laughed in her face.

This experience left her feeling "as if I had been flayed," but had its advantages: "The skin grew back again a little more tougher, a little less innocent and a little more black." About 7 years later, in her quest to become the first black classical pianist, she endured another racist incident. The prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia rejected her application for a scholarship. Nina was adamant: "White people who knew said that the reason I was turned down was because I was black. I knew prejudice existed, but I never thought it could have such a direct affect on my future." Despite this slap in the face, at the end of the 1950s she was brilliantly combining jazz and blues with classical inflections. Residing in New York, she was also befriending members of the black intelligentsia like James Baldwin and Langston Hughes.

But Nina credits playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author of Raisin In The Sun, with really initiating her deeper political education. "Through her I started thinking about myself as a black person in a country run by white people and a woman in a world run by men." In 1962 she was also introduced to and subsequently inspired by Stokely Carmichael, who later coined the phrase "Black Power." She was also making political comments on stage herself, but not in song. She describes the brutal premeditated murder of Medgar Evers, a secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), in June of the following year as "the match that lit the fuse" of her political career. But it was the bombing of a church in Alabama 3 months later, which killed 4 black girls - the subject of Spike Lee’s recent documentary - which finally provoked her into dedicating herself unflinchingly to "the struggle for black justice, freedom and equality."

On hearing the tragic news Nina admitted, "I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone." But she decided to channel her vitriol into song - 'Mississippi Goddam', which was composed that very day. John Coltrane, too, was moved to record the haunting 'Alabama', but his was an instrumental and did not include the inflammatory lyrical content of 'Mississippi Goddam': "Oh, this whole country’s full of lies, You’re all going to die and die like flies, I don’t trust you anymore!" The song was the first to unearth the sense of impatient indignation now permeating the optimism of the civil rights movement. Pertinently, in the very same year, Martin Luther King had also stated in "Letter From Birmingham Jail": "Wait has almost always meant never."

Over the following few years she recorded many more songs with uncompromising political statements like 'Old Jim Crow,' 'Four Women,' 'Backlash Blues,' 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free' and 'To Be Young, Gifted And Black.' But she also flung herself into supporting civil rights marches and performed many benefit concerts, some within the belly of the beast - Mississippi and Alabama. It was common for such performers to receive death threats and she’s admitted that "those shows were a mixture of excitement, pride and cold, cold fear." Yet, these gigs and her recordings not only helped highlight the civil rights movement but also roused the spirits of its members toiling selflessly in life-threatening surroundings. In fact, such was the momentum of Nina’s emotional conviction that she once jumped onto the stage of New York play to harangue 2 black actors whose roles she felt demeaned the black race.

In the first half of the '60s, Nina also attended Malcolm X’s rallies and sensed, "It was the Black Muslims, led by Malcolm X, whose talk of self-reliance and self-defiance seemed to echo the distrust of white America that I was feeling." Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965 only aggravated the rising sense of doubt and disillusionment affecting black Americans, and these feelings plunged to their nadir in the wake of Martin Luther King’s 1968 murder. These tragedies tempered the resolve of many black Americans who now depended on more aggressive factions like the Black Panthers and the radically altered Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) fronted by Stokely Carmichael. Speaking of these emerging militant groups, she declared, "They scared the hell out of white folks too, and we certainly needed that." But it was also during these years that "news came through every day of friends being arrested, beaten and intimidated." The FBI was monitoring her too.

At the turn of the decade though, Nina’s formidable impetus stalled. "SNCC was dead in the water, CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) was going the same way. The SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) was still trying to recover after losing Martin, every black political organisation of importance had been infiltrated by the FBI, police terrorised our communities. The plain truth was we were in retreat." Her bitterness exploded during a Newark concert in March, 1970. In front of a totally black audience she savaged the failings of black and white politicians and, in retrospect, confessed, "That was the beginning of my withdrawal from political performance." She soon started a long period of self-imposed exile in Barbados, Liberia and, finally, Europe.

But despite her migration, Nina’s music continued to inspire. In 1970, on their debut album, the Last Poets roared, "I am the wish that makes Nina Simone wish she knew how it felt to be free." In the same year, students in Mississippi played her music before incinerating a Confederate flag. George Jackson, a Field Marshall in the Black Panthers, was murdered by a prison guard in San Quentin in August, 1971, and at his funeral a recording of Nina Simone’s 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free' was played. In retrospect, Bernice Johnson Reagon, a member of the Freedom Singers and, later, Sweet Honey In The Rock, confirms the crucial part Nina’s music played in the civil rights movement: "Nina Simone helped people survive. Nina Simone’s sound captured the warrior energy that was present in the people, the fighting people."