Nina Simone was a singular voice in music. Her intense, grizzled style and stark, unafraid message continue to reverberate throughout both decades and genres, and her work continues to be directly referenced and reimagined in modern music by everyone from Michael Buble to Kanye West.
Born in 1933 as Eunice Kathleen Waymon, she changed her name to “Nina Simone” when she began performing regularly in Atlantic City nightclubs. Knowing her mother would not approve of playing the “Devil’s Music,” Simone initially used the stage name to help her fly under the radar. Nina Simone, fondly known as The High Priestess of Soul, went on to record more than 40 albums over the course of her career. In 2018, Simone was officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after receiving her first nomination since the Hall’s first induction year in 1986.
In addition to being a powerhouse singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, Nina Simone was an influential civil rights activist, often using her music as a platform to draw attention to the violence and hardships facing African Americans. Below, you can hear Simone discuss and perform a pair of her more political songs: “Revolution”, which deals generally with rebelling against oppression, and “Strange Fruit”, a song Billie Holiday made famous but Simone made her own, a chilling rendering of the rampant southern lynchings at that time.
Nina Simone – “Revolution” & “Strange Fruit”
Simone’s generally sharp and opinionated consciousness of racial and social discourse was prompted by her friendship with black playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry was the person who inspired Simone to use her music and performances as vehicles for provocative and poignant commentary. One of Nina’s more hopeful activism songs, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, was written within the years following Hansberry’s passing and got its title from one of Hansberry’s unpublished plays. You can listen to Nina speak about Lorraine Hansberry and perform “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” below:
Nina Simone – “To Be Young, Gifted and Black“
[Video: Nina Simone]
Another gem in Simone’s repertoire of activist material (previously referred to as her “first protest song”) is “Mississippi Goddamn”, which she wrote in 1964 amid outrage at the violence being perpetrated against her people. As her bandleader, Al Schackman, explains in a CNN video:
We were in a moment in history that we needed to be responsible to. In 1963, in Birmingham, four little girls were brutally murdered in a bombing. Murdered! Four little girls! Nina went crazy. She wanted to pick up a gun, go down south, and shoot Klansmen. Her husband said, “Write about it,” and she did, she wrote “Mississippi Goddamn”. Nina wrote the song, I think, within 24 hours. That was her masterpiece. She was able to define her feelings. People really responded to it…We played that song at the Selma march. We knew we were going there on a mission…
You think all these years later, that we’ve come to our senses. But not quite. The fight is not yet over. The young people today have to pick up the baton.
Below, watch a video about the creation of Nina Simone’s “first protest song,” “Mississippi Goddamn”: