Nina Simone: Musician and Civil Rights Activist

Nina Simone was a genre-defying musician whose recordings blended jazz, folk, classical piano and blues. She recorded countless iconic songs during her career, including “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” “Feeling Good,” “I Put a Spell on You," and the jazz staple “My Baby Just Cares For Me." In the 1960s, she became active in the Civil Rights Movement with songs such as "Mississippi Goddamn" and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black." In 2018, she will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21st, 1933. After starting to play the piano at the age of three, she took classical music lessons and played in her mother’s church. She loved the classical piano composers: Bach, Chopin, Beethoven and Schubert. By the time she graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and started studying at the Julliard School in New York, her goal was to become the world’s first African American classical pianist.

She was thwarted in this ambition, however, after being denied a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, another top music conservatory. In an interview from 1991, she says, “They didn’t give me the opportunity to start as a black classical pianist. I was refused a scholarship because I was black.”

After this disappointing end to her formal music training, she began performing in Atlantic City nightclubs, taking the stage name Nina Simone in honor of the French actress Simone Signoret. Her career began to take off at age twenty-four, when she was signed to King Records and recorded her breakout song, “I Loves You, Porgy” from the musical Porgy and Bess.

In her 1991 autobiography I Put A Spell on You, Simone wrote,

“Critics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing, and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in. It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz. On top of that I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So, saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.”

By the early 1960s, Simone became active in the Civil Rights Movement, taking part in the Selma to Montgomery marches and recording several songs that soon became civil rights anthems. Her original song, “Mississippi Goddam,” was banned from radio play throughout the South for its frank discussion of racism. She also covered Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” and wrote the gospel-influenced “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” in memory of her late friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

“Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning. And until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me, I had musical problems as well. How can you take the memory of a man like [Civil Rights activist] Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? … But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.”

Having grown tired of the racial injustice and divided politics she experienced in America, Simone expatriated to Liberia in the late 1960s. Her career had suffered from her outspokenness about civil rights issues, and she spent most of the 1970s in a musically fallow period, struggling both financially and with her mental health. After living in several European countries, she eventually settled in southern France, near Aix-en-Provence.

Simone experienced a career resurgence in the 1980s, thanks in part to a Chanel perfume commercial that featured her version of “My Baby Just Cares For Me." The song reached No. 5 on the UK charts and led to a renewed interest in Simone’s work. She continued to tour until the late 1990s, filling concert halls into the last years of her career. She died at the age of 70, in 2003.

Fifteen years later, Nina Simone's music continues to inspire audiences. She was recently the subject of two documentaries, Nina and What Happened, Miss Simone?

Further Reading

Nina Simone,
Biography from Nina Simone's Official Website
10 Things We Learned from the Nina Simone Doc, Rolling Stone