By the time Nina Simone took to the stage to perform at Carnegie Hall in March 1964, many radio stations had already banned her music. Simone, equal parts jazz and blues virtuoso and civil rights activist, had rebuked the Jim Crow south as much as she had affronted the kinder, gentler sounds of mainstream pop radio. Her songs, especially by the mid 60’s weren’t just melodies, but howls of protest. And when she came to New York on that March evening, Simone deployed her signature husky, melancholic contralto to say, “Goddam.” Although she had scored a Top 40 hit in 1958 with her delicate rendering of “I Loves You Porgy,” Simone’s appearance at Carnegie Hall, which was a lifelong dream, saw her girded for battle. Appearing before a largely white, middle class audience, she introduced a song called “Mississippi Goddam.” The song, both musically and politically, would make history.
In her disarmingly relaxed style, she cleverly introduced the number by characterizing it as “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” Simone, whose onstage quiescence often camouflaged the haunting depths of her rage, was never one to soothe, even if her sui generis vocals suggested otherwise. By 1964, more than ever, she had reached a turning point, what with the deep south being torn apart by racial violence and despair. And the lyrics for her signature anthem, which would indelibly link her to the civil rights movement, were as acid-drenched as they were ferociously urgent:
Alabama’s gotten me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam … Oh but this whole country is full of lies / You’re all gonna die and die like flies / I don’t trust you any more / You keep on saying “Go slow!” “Go slow!”
Of course, Alabama was ravaged by its own racial carnage, most notably the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. But even the German Shepherds and fire-hoses of Bull Connor’s Birmingham had an arguably more invidious rival in Mississippi. In fact, “Mississippi Goddam,” was a scalding indictment of the murder of Medgar Evers, a point at which Simone’s music would be forever bound to the cause of social justice. A civil rights stalwart, Evers was an organizer for the NAACP as well as the head of The Regional Council for Negro Leadership. A World War II veteran who never backed down from the threats and intimidation frequently hurled at him, Evers was assassinated in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi, home on the morning of June 12, 1963.
Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymon, was the sixth child of a preacher’s family in Tryon, North Carolina, and she was never particularly inclined toward activism, let alone singing the blues. Born in 1933, the young Eunice trained as a classical pianist from 4 years old and was immediately proficient in all things Bach and Debussy. Prior to becoming “Nina Simone,” she applied to and was rejected by the elite Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. This sting of rejection, which she blamed on racism, compelled her to abandon classical music in favor of jazz.
While always ensconced in the world of music, Simone also found intellectual and spiritual comfort with the likes of James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry and Malcolm X. It was amid this political fermentation that she found her voice, hence “Mississippi Goddam” as well as later riffs on the socio-political anguish of the era with songs like “Young, Gifted and Black,” a moving tribute she composed in memory of Hansberry. But as the 60’s gave way to the more militant, black power ’70s, Simone’s artistic defiance morphed into personal disillusionment.
As depicted in Liz Garbus’ piercing new documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? Simone’s politics were as tempestuous as her love life. Her husband and manager was called Andy Stroud, an ex-cop who controlled both her life and career through verbal threats and brutal physical assault. She was herself prone to caustic outbursts, both at audience members and those close to her, a condition that was ultimately diagnosed as bi-polar disorder many years after her musical salad days and the collapse of her 11 year marriage. After she and Stroud divorced, she left America, living in Liberia, Switzerland and, finally, France. (She died in Carry-le-Rouet in 2003.)
As an apotheosis of artist cum activist, there was little about Simone that didn’t, on its very face, subvert every expectation about what it meant to be black, and more specifically what it meant to be a black singer in America. While the unique timbre of her androgynous vocalizing made her something of a gadfly in the music business, her jazzy, take no prisoners sermonizing was by its very existence inimical to the bourgeois pop giddiness of Berry Gordy’s Motown, and other “safer” black sounds.
Of “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone told Steve Allen in 1964:
First you get depressed, and after that you get mad, … It’s a very moving, violent song.
In the wake of the Charleston murders, the killing of Freddy Gray, Trayvon Martin and other murders of unarmed black people, the music of Nina Simone takes on a new immediacy, with her ferociously enduring attempt to employ art in the name of agitation. White owned record labels be damned, and even black ones for that matter, as Simone had no time for antiseptic corporate politics. As she bluntly contended about hip-hop, it was a sound that “ruined music, as far as I’m concerned.” No apologies necessary, Jay-Z.
If James Baldwin had come to “bear witness,” Simone came to upend. “What happened, Miss Simone?” the documentary asks, but what happened and what is happening in America? In a later interview only revealed many years after her death, Simone says:
At this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved.… We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all.
Simone may have been no pop star, but her music would never be transitory. In fact, there was and is no single moment, other than each and every time she seduced us to attention. Nina Simone is back into the public consciousness and not a moment too soon.