Known professionally as ‘Nina Simone’, Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in 1933. She was an American singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and Civil Rights Activist – not too many people know about that second part. Her music spanned styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel and pop.
The sixth of eight children, Nina Simone was born to a poor family in Tryon, North Carolina, and initially aspired to be a concert pianist. With the help of a few supporters in her hometown, she enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. She then applied for a scholarship to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she was denied admission despite a well received audition – which she put down to racism because she was Black. In 2003, just days before her death, the Institute awarded her an honorary degree.
The lyrics of one of Nina Simone’s most famous songs, “Mississippi Goddamn,” attacked the slow pace of racial justice in America, and the continued, centuries-long oppression of and violence against Black Americans. Reaction to the song was mixed, in the South there were protests, the song was banned in several states and there were numerous instances of people destroying copies of the record itself.
Nina Simone was not perfect. Not by any means. But she was a fighter and I admire that about her.
One of my favourite stories about her is when she was a child prodigy playing in the Deep South, refusing to perform because her parents were forced to sit at the back because they were Black. She referred to it as her first feeling of being discriminated against. They ultimately were brought to the front to hear her. But it was a defining moment for her and her future.
If I ask you to name a Nina Simone song you probably would say “Feeling Good” and I wouldn’t blame you. It’s an epic song. Some mornings I have it on repeat. But my favourite song of hers is a lesser known one “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”. I love that song. It speaks to me, much like this quote does.
I hope for my children a world where they do not have to live in fear and are truly free.
By the way, if you’d like to learn more about Nina Simone and her life check out the Netflix documentary “What happened Miss Simone?” – I was riveted.