Nina Simone: Portrait of a Revolutionary Artist

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Nina Simone took the world of her experience, the hatred and anger of a lifetime of racial and sexual violence, and transformed it into a weapon to defend and uplift Black Americans. 

Nina Simone, 1969.

In 1943, in a public library in Tryon, North Carolina, a young Black girl named Eunice Waymon sat down to give her first ever classical music recital. Eunice had been playing piano since she was just three years old and had performed regularly in her mother’s all-Black church. But this was a white space, filled with “respectable” whites who had paid to see the young prodigy perform Bach, and she was, as she later described it, “shaking in her boots.” Her parents were also in attendance, but had been moved to the back of the room to make way for white audience members who wanted a better view of the young pianist’s hands. In what would become her first act of defiance against a system that would ultimately drive her to the brink of ruin, Eunice folded her arms and refused to play until her parents were returned to their seats in the front row. And the nice people of Tryon — perhaps to their own surprise — reluctantly agreed.

Just eleven years later, Eunice found herself seated at another piano, this time in a cheap Atlantic City bar. She and her family had moved to Philadelphia in the expectation that she would be accepted to the elite Curtis Institute of Music. Her plan was to be the first Black classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall. But when her application was rejected, despite her obvious merit, she had no choice but to seek out employment the only way she knew how. The owner of the Midtown Bar and Grill was impressed with Eunice’s piano abilities, but the customers wanted to hear jazz, and if she wasn’t willing to sing, she wasn’t going to get paid. Knowing that her mother would disapprove, but desperate for the $90 a week salary she had been promised, young Eunice took up the stage name Nina Simone, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What followed was a brilliant and turbulent musical career that led Simone to become one of the most important and revolutionary musical artists of her time.The form and style of her music, her lyrics, her interpretation of classic jazz and art songs, her stage presence, her performance, and her public persona all screamed out one word: freedom! For Simone, that freedom was a fleeting experience, often accomplished only on stage, but it was a demand that she made continuously in all of her work. Though she said that her music was “a reflection of the times,” it was much more than that. Her music did what great art always must do: construct from the truth of experience not only a different perspective of the world, but a tool with which to remake it. Nina Simone took the world of her experience, the hatred and anger of a lifetime of racial and sexual violence, and transformed it into a weapon to defend and uplift Black Americans at a time when the question of the interlocking oppressions of Black segregation and capitalism was being starkly posed to the whole country. Though Simone frequently advocated violent revolution, and though she was friends and fellow travellers with many socialists and communists of many different stripes —including Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, and Malcolm X — she rarely spoke directly about socialism. As she put it, her job was to expose the sickness: “To me, American society is nothing but a cancer, and it must be exposed before it can be cured. I am not the doctor to cure it however, sugar.” Nonetheless, Simone managed to channel her anger and her talent into a body of work that continues to inspire and uplift revolutionaries across the globe.

“I Don’t Trust you Anymore”: Carnegie Hall, 1964

“I want to shake people up so bad, that when they leave a nightclub where I’ve performed, I just want them to be in pieces.”

Simone had always dreamed of being the first Black classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall, and by 1963, she had finally arrived. Although the program was jazz standards and folk songs rather than Bach, the feeling of accomplishment must have been intense. However, like so much of her life, every accomplishment was itself a reminder of what she had been denied and what was still denied to her as a black woman in a segregated America. While she was performing at Carnegie Hall, Jim Crow was alive and well, and civil rights activists continued to face violence and death. In fact, the very same night of her 1963 concert, Martin Luther King had been arrested in Birmingham.

That first headline show at Carnegie Hall was well received, and Simone was at the height of her abilities. However, the year that followed was one of incredible artistic and political growth for Simone, and it was her 1964 concert in the same venue that turned out to be truly historic. She had been slowly radicalizing over the course of her friendship with the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who had introduced her to “Marx, Lenin and revolution,” and the tumultuous events of 1963 had only inflamed her revolutionary commitments. That year, Medgar Evers had been assassinated outside his home in Jackson Mississippi, and just three months later, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing had killed four young Black girls and injured dozens of others. The contrast between her own success, performing in front of a mostly white audience at Carnegie Hall, and the ongoing suffering of the majority of Black people in the U.S. could not have been lost on her. And, not surprisingly, that second Carnegie Hall concert marked a kind of turning point not only in her career but in her politics. She had arrived, but in many ways, her life was only just beginning.

The 1964 Carnegie Hall concert is best known for being the first recording of her legendary civil rights anthem, “Mississippi Goddam” — which she had written as a direct response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing — but, often overlooked is her performance of Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s classic “Pirate Jenny,” a song that she had performed before but never previously recorded. By 1964, Simone had embraced a politics of Black self-defense. She was ready to fight and die to win freedom for Black Americans, and Pirate Jenny was a stark expression of her growing commitment to a broader confrontation with the system. Indeed, Simone had transformed Weill’s ballad of feminist revenge into a full-throated warning to white America: Keep it up, the song implied, and the blood will flow on both sides of the racial divide.

Pirate Jenny (Live At Carnegie Hall, New York, 1964)

Simone’s interpretation was based largely on Marc Blitzstein’s translation, which had become the standard for English performances of the Three Penny Opera. Originally meant to be performed by the middle-class Polly Peachum, and in later interpretations of the play by the prostitute Jenny Diver, the song was supposed to portray a private fantasy of feminist revenge. But Simone turned it into a ballad of Black feminist power that was a perfect complement to the more directly political “Mississippi Goddam.” While the English translation of the song is set amid a “ratty waterfront” in a “ratty old hotel,” Simone transports the singer to a “crummy Southern town” in a “crummy old hotel,” creating a racially-charged context that can’t be ignored and that utterly and permanently transforms the song.

While “Pirate Jenny” is often performed as a jaunty tavern ballad (think Lotte Lenya’s 1954 English performance), Simone’s arrangement is much more dramatic. There is something menacing at work, and this menace is manifested in the slow chord progression of the piano, as well as the introduction of the timpani, which adds a depth and seriousness to the composition that complements Simone’s dynamic vocals. Simone’s Jenny is also much more serious and sardonic than most other interpretations. She is a confident plotter, scrubbing the floors and making the beds, but all the while planning a full assault on the town and her oppressors. While Lenya’s Jenny is clearly a fictional product of her character’s own weakness, Simone’s Jenny feels real. The opening lines, “You people can watch while I’m scrubbing these floors and I’m scrubbing these floors while you’re gawking,” are sung with a lively self-assurance that quickly gives way to a kind of breathless conspiratorial whisper that by the third verse becomes a bold, declarative description of “the ship, the black freighter” on its way to level the town.

In the Three Penny Opera, Brecht wanted to compare the violence of the oppressed with the violence of the oppressor to show that capitalists were no better than pirates or gangsters, and the “Pirate Jenny” song was an important part of this comparison meant to alienate the listener. In Simone’s version, however, the pirate ship, the “black freighter” is more than merely a vehicle of revenge, plunder, or reckless violence; it becomes a positive symbol for the assertion of Black power. The knowledge of its existence comforts the speaker as she goes about her chores, and its arrival marks a moment of revolutionary upheaval and violence that is beyond bourgeois judgment — in Simone’s version, it is more likely that the men brought in chains are not merely privileged and wealthy, but slavers and slave catchers. As the song progresses, Simone’s vocals become ever more bitter, angry, and aggressive, erupting at times in shouts and at other times in sneering growls, culminating finally with an explosive yawp that seems to have sent the audience to its feet.

Despite its revolutionary fervor, “Pirate Jenny” was still a fantasy set in the distant past. “Mississippi Goddam,” on the other hand, was a song that had been born directly out of Black struggle and suffering.

Mississippi Goddam (Live At Carnegie Hall, New York, 1964)

An antidote to the passivity of “We Shall Overcome,” “Mississippi Goddam” is a scathing indictment of racial violence, segregation, and economic oppression. Simone had written the lyrics in a fury of creative inspiration just hours after hearing about the Birmingham bombing. As her biographer Alan Light put it: “Her immediate impulse was to get violent, retreating to her garage and trying to build a zip gun, but within a few hours of hearing the news Simone had channelled her ravaged emotions into something else.” The product of that rage and anger was a song that simultaneously manages to condemn the whole damn system while joyously and rebelliously celebrating that resistance through song.

Indeed, although the lyrics point to some of the worst atrocities of the white terror that was being unleashed on Black Americans during the Civil Rights era, the composition opens with a simple and upbeat structure. As Simone liked to joke during the song: “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” This liveliness, however, is likely one of the reasons it has become such a successful and powerful song of protest. It’s almost as if, faced with the horror of racial violence, Simone consciously designed a tune that could give vibrancy and energy to the movement rather than one that retreats into sorrow; or maybe it was only to keep herself from falling into the abyss. Regardless, despite the upbeat opening, the song really has two sides to it, and the other is decidedly darker if not any less energetic.

The opening lines, which are repeated throughout the song, celebrate a shared and righteous anger: Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi have undeniably disturbed the sleep of millions. However, there is something else stirring below that shared anger that is troubling the singer. A pressure that can’t be withstood for much longer. And it is here, appropriately enough, just three verses in, that the song shifts gears. The tonal structure pivots so subtly that the listener might miss it at first, but by the end it’s obvious that the song has transitioned into different sonic terrain. Moving from the major key to the relative minor, a shift that mirrors the change in the lyrics, the song takes on a decidedly darker, more melancholy tone. What began as a show tune has over the next several verses become increasingly more aggressive and angry, and Simone makes it clear that she has just about reached the limit of her patience.

Don’t tell me

I tell you

Me and my people just about due

I’ve been there so I know

They keep on saying ‘Go slow!’

Fed up with the white liberal demand to “take it slow,” the song launches into a soulful call and response (a form that will be repeated again later) between Simone and her band that builds to an almost revivalist-like crescendo. Whether it’s picking the cotton or washing the windows, it’s always too slow, and the singer — speaking here it seems for the millions of Black Americans enslaved over the centuries — is worried she is going insane and doesn’t know how to proceed. But she knows that somehow it must involve standing up and being counted with the rest of those fighting for civil rights. Simone teases her white audience, “I bet you thought I was kidding didn’t you,” before launching into yet another critique of both segregation and the false promise of assimilation.

The third section of the song continues the pattern established in the second, and the lyrics become increasingly sharp and critical, culminating in a fierce condemnation of the whole country:

Oh but this whole country is full of lies

You’re all gonna die and die like flies

I don’t trust you anymore

You keep on saying ‘Go slow!’

‘Go slow!’

And once again, the call and response follows, but this time the message is clearer: “You’re saying to us that we gotta ‘do it slow,’ but to ‘do things gradually’ will only ‘bring more tragedy.’” This attitude is, of course, a reflection of Martin Luther King’s famous criticism of the “white moderate.” But, even in 1964, Simone was already pushing back against the false promise of non-violent resistance that King had espoused, and the final verse makes this clear. In a move that rejects the fantasy of easy assimilation, Simone declares: “You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality.” Indeed, in many ways, these lines anticipate her friend Stokely Carmichael’s statement that “Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.”

Into the Maelstrom

“What kept me sane was knowing that things would change, and it was a question of keeping myself together until they did.”

After 1964, Simone was thrown, or more correctly leaped, into the maelstrom of the civil rights movement. No longer content to merely play for herself or posterity, increasingly unhappy in her marriage, and unsure of what the future held for her young daughter, Simone began to write and collaborate and play music that was often explicitly geared toward the political moment. More than ever, she felt compelled to use her music to protect and promote the interests of Black Americans, and her performances became increasingly political.

In 1965, the Civil Rights Movement was reaching an apex, and early that year, activists began a series of marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to demand an end to discriminatory voting laws that had disenfranchised millions of Black Americans. These marchers were, in turn, met with state violence and white terror. Dozens were beaten by the police, and one white activist, James Reeb, was murdered by white segregationists. Despite the violence they encountered, they continued, and by the end of the month they were more than 25,000 strong. Simone was playing a series of concerts at her regular venue in Greenwich Village, and when the invitation came to perform at Selma, she and the band dropped everything to attend. The concert was a who’s who of civil rights activists, Black artists, and intellectuals. James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, and others had all come out to perform for the tired marchers on their arrival in Montgomery. Although Simone and her band had effectively risked their lives to perform in defense of Martin Luther King’s vision of non-violent resistance, Simone was not fully on board with his politics. Indeed, that night when she was introduced to King, she made her disagreement clear, in her typical straightforward fashion, saying to him “I ain’t nonviolent.”

While King’s activism had brought her into the movement, by 1965, she had largely moved beyond his politics, aligning herself with the burgeoning Black power movement. Simone, after all, was not interested in getting along to get ahead: she was looking for a revolution, and her music and stage performances reflected this. Although her increasingly radical politics was alienating recording labels and radio stations, Simone didn’t care. She continued to speak out and write songs that challenged not only the sensibilities of the white establishment but those of Black audiences too.

Her 1966 “Four Women,” originally recorded on her album Wild is the Wind, was just such a song.

Four Women (Wild is the Wind, 1966) 

A bluesy portrait in four parts, the song was a declaration of independence for Black women, who continue to suffer multiple layers of oppression in the US and who — even within the black power movement itself — had faced sexual discrimination and oppression. A victim of phyiscal and sexual abuse — her husband Andy Stroud sometimes beat her so bad she couldn’t get out of bed — Simone captures the pain and anger of that oppression and the ways that Black women throughout history have borne that burden.

The song begins with a low, slow, and steady bassline and drum beat that lends a stately quality to the piece throughout, over which Simone and guitarist and flutist Rudy Stevenson improvise, picking up different themes as each of the four women, meant to represent different aspects of the experience of Black women in the U.S., introduce themselves and their predicaments. Of the first woman, Aunt Sarah, Simone says she is “someone all Black people have seen.” Her “skin is black,” her “arms are long,” her “hair is wooly” and her back is “strong enough to take the pain inflicted again and again.” She is both the slave and nursemaid of the South, as well as the dignified matron still bearing the scars of her mistreatment. The second woman, Saffronia, is of mixed color; born of sexual violence, she lives between two worlds, belonging to neither. By the introduction of the third speaker, the melody and dynamics, though following elegantly from what comes before, have become increasingly complex and rich. The third woman is beautiful and seductive. She has tan skin and fine hair, her mouth is like wine, and her inviting hips are available to anyone “who has money to buy.” She seems still to embrace her sexuality despite the fact that it has been made a commodity.

If the first three portraits represented different archetypes of the experience of Black women in the U.S., the last feels more personal, and it’s clear the final portrait, the woman named Peaches, is Simone herself. In the break between the third and fourth portrait, the tempo and dynamics of the piano become increasingly forceful, and Simone’s voice takes on a sharp cynical tone. This last speaker is decidedly different from the others:

My skin is brown

my manner is tough

I’ll kill the first mother I see

my life has been rough

I’m awfully bitter these days

because my parents were slaves

This last portrait is of a woman who is uncompromising and fierce, and it’s no surprise that Simone said she reminded her of Stokely Carmichael. She is the embodiment of the anger and frustration of centuries of oppression, and her name is sung with a sudden and crackling crescendo that is almost unlistenable in its intensity. In her autobiography, Simone explained that the last lines were meant to cut the listener, adding that “when any black woman hears that song, she either starts crying, or she wants to go out and kill somebody…Every black in the world who heard that fucking song knew what it meant.”

Just three years later, Simone performed “Four Women ” at the Harlem Cultural Festival, a performance that in many ways was the pinnacle of her revolutionary political engagement. By that point, she had given up any pretense of popular stardom and had thrown herself fully into the role of protest singer. By August, 1969, the political terrain for Black liberation had changed dramatically. For Simone, like so many others, the assassination of Martin Luther King had killed any chance for peaceful progress, and the only answer left was armed self-defense and active disruption of the day to day functioning of a capitalist system built on racist oppression. And her performance that day shows just how potentially explosive that political moment was.

The Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free concerts in what is now Marcus Garvey Park, has been widely hailed as the Woodstock of Black music and included some of the most well known Black musicians of the time including B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. But, as she was prone to do, Simone stole the show. In full African attire, she opened her set with her version of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” an interpretation that openly rejected the muddle-headed pacifism and pseudo-Eastern mysticism of the original.

Revolution (Harlem Cultural Festival August, 1969)

While the Beatles rejected the idea of violent revolution in favor of changing consciousness, Simone knew that we were, in many ways, already “in the middle of a revolution.” While the Beatles naively claimed they wanted nothing to do with destruction, Simone sang “of all the evil that will have to end.” While Lennon sang “You tell me it’s the institution/ Well, you know/ You better free your mind instead,” Simone knew that “The only way that we can stand in fact/ Is when you get your foot off our back.” By 1969, after the assassination of King, Simone was well aware that there were plenty of white Americans who would accuse her of “preaching hate,” but she knew “It’s not as simple as talkin’ jive,” and that revolution was part of “the daily struggle just to stay alive.” The Beatles had written “Revolution” as a sharp rebuke to the socialist Left, saying “Well, you know, we’re doing what we can.” Simone’s version on the other hand, is written from a space within the growing Black power movement, and thus when she sings “it’s gonna be all right,” she follows it with a call to “take a stand.”

Simone ended her set that day with a fiery musical recitation of a poem by David Nelson of the Last Poets that posed the question of revolution directly to the audience that day.

Are You Ready Black People, David Nelson (Harlem Cultural Festival, August, 1969)

In the sweltering heat of an August afternoon in New York City, Simone asked a cheering crowd if they were ready:  “Are you ready…to do what is necessary to do?” She asked. “Are you ready to Kill if necessary?” “Are you ready to do what you have to do to create life?” “Are you ready to smash white things?” “Are you ready to build Black things?” The joy and passion with which she delivers these lines, perhaps as much as any of her songs, shows how ready she was herself to go wherever the movement was going to take her.

Unfortunately, the months that followed saw a series of brutal defeats for the Black liberation movement in the U.S.. Just a month earlier, Stokely Carmichael had fled to Africa to escape harassment by state counter-intelligence agencies. In December, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and member Mark Clark were assassinated by the FBI in cold blood in a pre-dawn raid on the apartment where they were staying. In 1970, Angela Davis was arrested, and the movement, already deeply infiltrated by counter-intelligence agents, was rocked by infighting and violence. Less than a year after her appearance in Harlem, Simone left the United States, going first to Barbados and then to Liberia, returning only sporadically to perform over the next several decades. And although she became more and more reclusive in the years that followed, she never lost her revolutionary passion.

In an interview in 1999, Simone reflected on the role that her music had played “as a political weapon.” My music, she said, “has helped me for 30 years defend the rights of American Blacks and third-world people all over the world, to defend them with protest songs. To move the audience to make them conscious of what has been done to my people.” And all these decades later, her music continues to pay testimony to the struggles of oppressed people and to inflame the revolutionary passions of everyone who hears it.

About author

James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, and activist. He teaches at The City University of New York.