Things to know and learn from Nina Simone

During this time of confinement, I read an article on Afroféminas that recommended to watch five documentaries about black females. I included it on my to-do list. The first one I watched was What happened Miss Simone?, because Nina Simone is one my of favourite female singers.

The documentary starts with Maya Angelou’s quotation: “Miss Simone you are idolized even loved, by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?” In the first scene, Nina’s bows to the public, she sits at the piano, takes her time, and then starts to talk. This was at a concert in 1968.

The documentary that lasts 1:42 minutes is directed by Liz Garbus and produced by Amy Hobby in 2015. It describes Nina’s life and career through the voices of family members, activists, musicians, friends, etc. accompanied by her own music composition, an interviews done to her, and concerts.

Nina Simone was one of the outstanding female artists from the twentieth century of Blues, Jazz, Soul, Gospel, and other genres. She was born in Tryon, North Carolina, United States of America, on February 21st, 1933, under the name of Eunice Kathleen Waymon. She was the sixth of eight children. Her mother, Mary Kate Waymon, was a Methodist minister, and her dad was John Devan Waymon, a handyman and preacher. She died at her home located in the South of France on April 21st, 2003.

American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and activist Nina Simone (1933 – 2003), UK, 14th September 1979. (Photo by Mike Lawn/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

5 things to know about Nina

1- At age three or four she started to play the piano at church, she didn’t sing. One day at her performance, she was heard by Miss Mazzanovich, who got interested in giving her piano classes, where she learned classical music of great and famous musicians like Johann Sebastian Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert.

2- After studying music at Julliard in New York City, at age 19 she applied to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but her admission was denied. It took her several years to admit that racism was the reason. In 2003, just days before her death, the same Institute awarded her an honorary degree.

3- In 1961, Nina got married to Andy Stroud, who became her manager and father to her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly. Unfortunately, he abused her physically and psychologically.

4- She was a civil rights activist and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Correta Scott King, and others. She composed a lot of songs for the cause.

She said: ” How can you be an artist and not reflect the time”? With the song Mississippi Goddam, she addressed racial inequality for the first time after the killing of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black girls.

On the 15 of March, 1965, she spoke and performed at the march from Selma to Montgomery.

One of the parts in the documentary I got chill skin was when she sang To be Young, Gifted and Black, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The title of this song is from a play her friend, Lorraine Hansberry, was writing before her death. 

5- Nina became violent in her career and personal life,  behaviour which was understood when she was diagnosed to be a bipolar disorder. Lisa (her daughter) severely suffered the  consequences of  this to the point that it became suicidal making it necessary for her, to move back to New York to live with her father. 

5 things to learn from Nina

1- Her childhood was marked by the “Jim Crow laws. During the debut of one of her classical recital concerts, she refused to play because her parents who were sitting in the front seat were forced to move to the back of the hall to make way for white people. She played until her parents were relocated.

2- Even though she was famous, she was not silent to denounce and describe her circle of gender violence.

3- She was proud of her black identity, which she describes in many of her lyrics. The objective of these songs was to shape people’s minds not to be ashamed of their roots.

4- From the first to the last shot in the documentary, Nina Simone was a queen of fashion. She was always put together with colourful clothes, makeup, shoes, bags, hats etc.

5-We all need to let go and be free. Nina did it by abandoning her career and family when she moved to Liberia, Africa. She got a lot of criticisms, but she responded that it was the happiest moment of her life. In an interview, she said: ” Freedom for me is no fear”.

Anytime I watch her concerts, I am amazed to see the way she performs. She was very engaging with her audience, charismatic, she enjoyed being on stage, her body movements and passion while singing said it all. 

One of my favourite songs by Nina is Feeling good from her album I Put a Spell on You (1965):

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel

River running free, you know how I feel

Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn

It’s a new day

It’s a new life

For me

And I’m feeling good.

So don’t be silent, sing your song loud and proud, just as Nina did, but also add your part.

Author: Women Wheel

Women Wheel a community online that develops different women topics. Here I cover my experiences and others based on sexuality, gender, violence, culture, climate change, literature, womanhood, feminism, and decolonization stories that will link us together regardless of where you live, age, and race. Our wheel is durable and resistant, the same as the women’s fight, voices, and actions. Join the wheel!

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