Nina Simone was a singer, a pianist, a civil rights activist, and a badass who left behind a great legacy of captivating, timeless work. Ever since I first heard “See-Line Woman” blasting out of my friend’s room back in boarding school and decided the singer must be singing about me, the very thought of Nina Simone has filled me with “yaaaaaaaaas!” Born Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933 to a large North Carolina family, she was already playing piano at church when she was just three years old. Nina had dreams of becoming a classical pianist, but put them on hold to make money gigging in clubs. This sidetracking of her plans led to her career—over 40 albums spanning classical, jazz, gospel, pop, R&B, soul, blues, and folk genres.
During Black History Month a few years ago, the poet Danez Smith began a prompt-a-day writing challenge and one of the prompts was a video of Nina Simone speaking quite powerfully about blackness. Wearing an enviable hat and eyeliner combo, she declares:
“I think what you are trying to ask is why am I so insistent in giving out to them that blackness, that Black Power […] pushing them to identity with black culture. I think that’s what you’re asking. I have no choice over it in, the first place. To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world—black people. And I mean that in every sense, outside and inside. We have a culture that is surpassed by no other civilization, but we don’t know anything about it. So again—I think I’ve said this before in this same interview, I think sometime before—my job is to somehow make them curious enough or persuade them, by hook or crook, to get more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there, and just to bring it out. This is what compels me to compel them. And I will do it by whatever means necessary.”
Nina would also wear her hair natural and short, in plaits or headwraps, and with jewelry that all distinctly felt “African” at a time when that wasn’t necessarily fashionable. In the live version of her song “I Ain’t Got No…I Got Life,” she takes stock of all the things she has been dispossessed of, but as the hook approaches, she sings proudly of what she does have: “I got my nose, I got my smile, and it’s my smile…I got my neck, got my BOOBIES…I got life!” It’s just wonderful.
With politically galvanizing music like “Young, Gifted and Black,” her friendships with James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, her work during the civil rights movement, and her quick, confrontational temper, Nina Simone has gained recognition over the years as a critical voice in the ongoing anti-racist struggle for African-Americans and black people in the diaspora. Nina advocated for black people, and for herself, too. Onstage, she’d shout for silence from her audience and curse if they didn’t cooperate, because she expected to be afforded the same dignity as a classical musician. She was commanding and demanding, which wasn’t expected of women at the time, least of all black women. In interviews, she always spoke bluntly, airing her feelings without shame. In one conversation, she admits that she is “not very happy” because the public shoves the “jazz” label onto her, yet what she makes is actually “black classical music.” As heartbreaking as it is to hear her frustration, there is a certain bravery in her speaking openly about her disappointments and setting the record straight, even in her sadness. In Nina, I find the freedom to be as big, bold, loud, and demanding as I want to be about asserting my desires and my right to pursue them on my terms in a world that is often reluctant to let me do so.
Her interviews also provide background notes to her music and insight into her persona. They reveal an artist and critical thinker who was not shy about using the full force of her gifts to advocate for justice, just as she does on her famous protest anthem “Mississippi Goddamn.” Not only was Nina Simone a great musician and activist, she was also woman who loved love, really enjoyed sex, endured tragedy and heartbreak, and sang about it all unabashedly. Her music gives me a cheeky little something to sing to on my good days (“And, I don’t care if you don’t want me, I’m yours right now. I put a spell on you!”) and a small fire in my heart to fight through, on my sad ones.
I am always overwhelmed by Nina Simone, in the best possible way. Still, I also feel some sadness when I think of her life. Regardless of how cool it is that she was this larger-than-life personality, who called anti-Apartheid activist and singer Miriam Makeba her bestie, Nina’s life was unbelievably burdened by structural racism, domestic violence, depression, and grappling with bipolar disorder (the reason for her so-called “mood swings”) at a time when it was not yet fully understood. She left the U.S. in 1974, feeling rejected by the industry, and traveled for some time, living in Liberia on Makeba’s advice, and experiencing “a release” from the pressures of stardom and activism. She eventually settled in France where she died in 2003.
Nina Simone lived a life that demonstrated what it is to be strong and soft, vulnerable and bold, sexy and “down for the cause” all at once. In a world that likes women to adhere to illogical, sexist Madonna-whore binaries, I am glad that I have Nina who contained multitudes in her vast personality. Nina with her fighting words. Nina with her sad songs and broken heart. Nina with her self-indulgent sexiness. Nina with her wildfire spirit. Nina who was everything all at once. Happy birthday, Ms. Nina Simone. ♦