Artist Spotlight: Nina Simone

Story posted March 9, 2020 in Arts & Entertainment, CommRadio by Scott Perdue

With the re-release of her obscure record “Fodder on My Wings” approaching, it seems like an excellent time to take a step back and reflect on Nina Simone’s impressive body of work. 

Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known by her stage name Nina Simone, was a soul and jazz pianist who took the world by storm with her activist inspired music and heavy blues aesthetic. Dubbed by many as the “High Priestess of Soul,” Simone initiated her connection with music as an aspiring concert pianist. Walking across the railroad tracks to receive piano lessons in the segregated White neighborhood near her home, she studied from a young age how to play classics such as Bach.

Hoping one day to play at Carnegie Hall as the first ever African American concert pianist, Simone quickly realized that the potent racism of the times hindered her from receiving a proper education. Disheartened by the opposition she encountered in school and struggling to find a steady job, Simone began playing in night clubs in order to get by. Forced to sing in order to keep her job, she kicked off her singing career with a series of covers and self-written songs.  

Releasing her debut album “Little Girl Blue,” which consisted of a compilation of songs she played during her time in the night clubs, Simone generated an immediate devoted following. Spawning the hits “My Baby Just Cares For Me” and “I Loves You Porgy,” Simone gained instant acclaim and launched herself into the mainstream.

Attracting the attention of Andrew Stroud, a New York police detective with weight in the city, Simone married Stroud and made him her official manager. Initially loving his presence in her life, the two decided to have a child together. Finding their arrangement to produce monumental successes, Simone strung together a series of hits including the dynamic “Work Song.” However, the good times did not seem to last long and Simone quickly found that Stroud worked her harder than she believed was necessary. Straining herself to keep up with her budding career, Stroud became physically and psychologically abusive.

Reaching a turning point in her career, Simone was inspired by the tragic 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four young Black girls, to utilize her musical talents as a voice for civil rights activism. Fueled by her frustration with the climate of racism in America, Simone released the iconic empowering resistance anthem “Mississippi Goddam.” A crucial statement of the times, Simone boldly charged the blame for America’s racial injustices on several of the prejudiced and backwards southern states that were infamous for their hate crimes.

Notorious for her unwillingness to believe in a nonviolent approach to securing African American rights, Nina Simone became a central pillar of the civil rights movement alongside several of her monumental contemporaries. Gaining a reputation for speaking her mind and putting on a live show like no other, she quickly became one of the most recognizable voices in music.

Simone was able to showcase the impressive range of her sound by transitioning between somber songs such as “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” and imposing songs such as “I Put A Spell On You.” She hit her stride with a notable string of hits including the powerful “Feeling Good,” the up-beat “Sinnerman,” the gripping “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” the accusative “Backlash Blues” and the haunting “Strange Fruit.” Releasing hit record after hit record, Simone enjoyed a steady rise in success while still maintaining her significant activist presence.

However, everything came to a crashing halt when the world lost Martin Luther King Jr. to an assassination in 1968. That same year, Simone released her legendary live studio album “Nuff Said!” which consisted of a deeply touching performance she gave just three days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder. Simone notably dedicated the genuinely tender song “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” in his memory. An astonishing hit, she sustained her golden era with a series of surprising hits such as the uplifting “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life.”

Wanting to give black people a reason to be proud of their skin and their culture, she released the tremendously important track “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” in honor of her dear friend Lorraine Hansberry. A song which helped to rise the spirits of the disheartened masses, Simone provided a recovering America a song to restore their hope. Simone reflected on this period in her autobiography “Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone” claiming, “I felt more alive then than I feel now because I was needed, and I could sing something to help my people.”

However, Simone quickly found herself growing isolated and outcasted by an America that was slowly losing so many of its civil rights leaders. She chose to leave her husband and life behind in order to retreat to Barbados in 1970. She allowed her career to be placed on the backburner and found herself finally able to take a rest. Unable to return to the United States due to a warrant out for her arrest because of her refusal to pay taxes as a protest to the Vietnam War, Simone remained in Barbados for several years. Unfortunately, after several taxing years of abuse from her husband and a country which broke her mental state, Simone spiraled into an intense depression.

Eventually, Simone recovered thanks to a network of close friends who inspired her to start working again. She returned with a series of live concerts, and was able to successfully place her life back on track.

Nina Simone has since inspired countless musicians with her wide-ranging style and activist presence. She was a crucial voice in the civil rights movement and an iconic figure of Black resistance. She made several sacrifices in her life in order to lift her people. Simone boldly faced a world that at seemingly every turn discouraged her, but with courage and steely resolve became one of the most remarkable figures in music history.

 

Reviewer’s Favorite Songs: “Stars,” “Mississippi Goddam” and “Ain’t Got No/ I Got Life”
Reviewer’s Favorite Albums: “Nina Simone Sings The Blues,” “Nuff Said!” and “Here Comes The Sun”

 

Scott Perdue is a junior majoring in secondary education. To contact him, email rsp5246@psu.edu.