She Who Struggles: Nina Simone

"...But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good, oh Lord please don't let me be misunderstood" eases out of the nearby CD player and dances inside my ears and mind, as my soul slips into the speakers and into the world created by the lyrics and rich, deep, and distinctive voice of the legendary Nina Simone. Her voice commands your attention without assaulting your inner peace: yet she'll deposit an inner piece of herself and her experience through her music. You may know her from "Strange Fruit", the powerfully, descriptive and accurate song about lynching in the south or you may recognize her name from her 1964 song "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". You may not know any of this sassy, strong woman's music, but just know the name. In that case, this article will do you some good... picture this:

You're sitting in a Philly jazz night club in the ‘60's. The lights are dimmed, with a subtle hum from the murmuring audience. The stage is blackened, and you're sitting at your candlelit table sippin' on something nice, listening to the ice clink in the glass when all of a sudden: "I put a spell on you, because you're mine... do do doo dododooo. You better stop the things you do... I ain't lyin'..." You look up to be taken by the presence of a beautiful, ebony woman with pronounced cheek bones, full lips, intense eyes and a voice that speaks to every part of your consciousness. She is playing the piano and singing, telling her story of love and struggle. As she scats, you're blown away with a presence that demands respect and a deep voice that takes control of everything and everyone in the atmosphere, as she sings "I love you anyhow, and I don't care if you don't want me, I'm yours right now! You hear me? I put a spell on you because you're mine." As you sit there transfixed, under the "spell" of this amazing woman you hear the host of the night say "Nina Simone". That's a name you won't forget once you hear it ...a voice you won't forget... a presence you won't encounter with any other. She is so much more than a pianist and songstress: she's an activist, composer, arranger, songwriter, and woman. Her music has been translated into numerous languages and is known worldwide.

"Nina Simone" (aka "The High Priestess of Soul") was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. She was the sixth of eight children and began playing the piano and singing in the church choir at the tender age of six. She put on her first recital at the age of ten at the town library; however, this was also her very first experience with racism when her parents were made to give up their front row seats to accommodate whites. This intertwined her passion for fighting racism and discrimination with music. She left North Carolina in 1950 with money donated from the community and attended Julliard School of Music. She tested for a scholarship at Curtis Institution in Philadelphia, but was rejected because of her race. She still had to support herself so she became an accompanist for a singing teacher and in 1954 landed a job as a pianist at Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This is when she changed her name to "Nina" (a nickname given by her boyfriend) and "Simone" (she said it sounded dignified) from the French actress Simone Signoret. She began performing at different Philadelphia clubs with her new name and fresh talent and in 1957 she was given recording time at Bethlehem Records. Her career took off and in 1958 she released her first hit "I Loves You Porgy" and "He Needs Me"; both were contained on her debut album entitled "Little Girl Blue". From 1959-1964, she released ten albums on Colpix Record label. These included hits "Sayonara" and "Samson and Delilah". In 1961, she married Andy Stroud, a New York detective and a year later they had their daughter Lisa Celeste Stroud. In 1964, she signed with Philips and released seven albums in a three year period: hits included "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", which became associated with her name, and "I Put a Spell on You".

During this time, she began doing protest songs in support of the Civil Rights Struggle. "Mississippi Goddam", her first protest song, was written after the murders of Medgar Evers (June 1963) and the four schoolchildren in Alabama (September 1963). Later she redid "Strange Fruit", which had been done by Billie Holiday. After Dr. King's assassination she recorded the song "Why? The King of Love is Dead." She was very outspoken and instrumental in the fight against racism in America; however, she could never get herself to come to tolerate the treatment of blacks in America while fighting to get change. This is what separated her from other artists; she took on the fight for Civil Rights and it was a part of her persona that she exhibited proudly and freely. From 1966-1974, she was on RCA label and this was her last long-term affiliation with an American label. In 1969, she renounced America because of the racism and wandered between Liberia, Barbados, Switzerland, France, Trinidad, Netherlands, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. In 1970, she and her husband separated and in 1978 she was arrested for withholding taxes in 1971-1973 in protest to the undeclared war on Vietnam. She was quickly released. All of her other records were released on non-American labels and remained hits worldwide. In 1993, she moved to the southern French town of Bouc-Bel-Air. She has 30 albums total; all of which defy classification because her music ranges from classical to folk, from blues to Ellington songs. Her music embraces numerous musical styles. This influential woman became one with her origin on April 21, 2003 in Carry-le-Rouet, France, at the age of 70.

When remembering Nina Simone, we should be inspired by her struggle against racism, her outspokenness, her class, her style, her talent, her humanness, her realness, and her healing art. She struggled with the pain and consequences of racism; she was a fighter for equality and respect. But she also knew when it was time to heal and be healed: it is then that she turned to music. Her music is left as a beautiful testimony of her life and experience as a black woman in America. She said in a 1997 interview:

"I want to be remembered as a diva from beginning to end who never compromised in what she felt about races and how the world should be, and who to the end of her days consistently stayed the same."

What do we do with this information? We allow it to heal us. We take pride in our legacy and sister's strength. We draw strength from her life in hopes of touching others in the way she has touched us. So to Nina Simone we say "Asante Sana" for the lessons and blessings of your dynamic presence. This article is a written libation for you: we'll never forget. Hotep.

{ exclusive feature}
by Asha Taylor (The Liberator Magazine 2.2 #4)

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