Nina Simone: Recapturing and Rewriting Black Herstories through the Keys of Her Piano

This essay was composed for UCLA Honors coursework with the African American Studies’s ‘Culture and Media in Los Angeles’ in the Fall of 2013. The feature cover artwork, Nina on Wall (2009) is an original oil on canvas from the Red Wall series by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. Please click on the highlighted links to deepen your learning, musical, and historical experience. Enjoy!

At the height of the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, no other musical Performance Artist had the massive crossover appeal and political prowess than that of Nina Simone. Reverently referred to as the High Priestess of Soul, Simone seamlessly blended pop and jazz experimentation within classical sensibilities paired with her bold lyricism, powerhouse vocals, and enigmatic performance of pianist genius. Simone channeled the national unrest of the Civil Rights movement, composing music and lyrics that would come to define an era of social protest and uprising in American history. A dynamic artist and outspoken political activist, Simone used her voice to call attention to the tragedies of racial segregation, subjugation, and oppression, while also inspiring a sense of pride and intrinsic beauty within the collective psyche of the Black community. Captivating both Black and White audiences alike with her lyrical skills and poignant stage performances, she brought listeners to their feet, encouraging them to organize for social action and equal rights. This study explores the life and times of Nina Simone, her musical endeavors to recover the lost histories of Black Americans, and her role as an artist engaged within the creative struggle for social justice, equality, and spiritual transformation. This essay is unique in that it includes links to musical performances and interviews with Simone, transmitting the transcendent energy of her artistry through the medium of visual representation and storytelling.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, in Tryon, North Carolina, February 21, 1933, to her mother Mary Kate Waymon was a Methodist minister and housemaid, and father John Divine Waymon, an entertainer excelling in the art of dance and musical harmonica. Eunice stemmed from a rich history of preachers, inheriting a deeply religious, spiritual, and musical legacy that would prepare her for the world stage, giving her the tools to stir the soul of the nation. She began playing the piano at age four and would soon perform the spiritual gospels that had sustained the spirits of the Black community through generations of slavery, post-Reconstruction racism, and Jim Crow’s legal segregation. Within the sight and sound of the powerful influence and charismatic orations of her mother, a female pastor and minister within the predominately male hierarchies of Christian religious organizations, Eunice was raised to love and embody the resilient strength of the African-American community, channeling their spiritual energy through the tips of her fingers and the keys on her piano.

It was through the intimate knowledge of the spiritual gospel that Eunice honed her prodigal skills. Simone had memorized by heart the songs of freedom and hardships Black American slaves had passed down through time, giving voice and expression to the traumatic experiences of life on Southern plantations. Oral histories were preserved within the written and spoken word, preserving cultural traditions while creating new wisdoms. Through shared collective experiences of life on Southern plantations, Black people intelligently designed and organized a system of intricate social constructions and storied myth that would inspire meaning, purpose, and faith into the dehumanized spirit of an enslaved population. In the years ahead, Simone would give voice the exultant and celebratory spirit of the Black community, conveying their eclectic sound and electric energy into “Sinnerman”, a powerful prayer with its roots springing from the Black spiritual and church revival. Invoking “Power to the Lord”, Nina’s prayers are met within the call and response of the choir.

Through codified transmittal of song, language, and sound, spiritual hymnals of Black slaves soon began to take root in the origins of the Blues tradition. Created in the years after the abolition of slavery, the Blues Bloc was organized within communities to serve as an engine for cultural resistance against institutionalized racism, discriminatory practices of Jim Crow laws, and legal sanctioning of terrorism by white-supremacists. In his analysis of the Blues epistemology, author Clyde Woods explains that the medium was instrumental in creating conceptual maps to explain reality and changes within the social order to a population of newly freed citizens:

The blues emerge immediately after the overthrow of Reconstruction. During this period, unmediated African American voices were routinely silenced through the imposition of a new regime of censorship based on exile, assassination and massacre. The blues became an alternative form of communication, analysis, moral intervention, observation, celebration for a new generation that had witnessed slavery, freedom, and unfreedom. (Woods, 36)

In order to combat the continuance of social and symbolic violence incited daily against the minds and bodies of their people, Blues Artists were drawing new sounds out of their instruments, conjuring evocative representations of personal struggle and heartache, but also deep sensuality and the ecstatic joy of life.

The Blues served as a powerful medium for Black women to assert their independence, challenging patriarchal hierarchies, and redressing recurrences of sexual and domestic violence within and outside private spheres. On her 1967 album Nina Sings the Blues, Simone lays her sultry and assertive vocals over the twang of a guitar, harmonica pitch, and tremble of her piano, on the track “Blues for Mama”. Written with jazz musician and friend Abbey Lincoln, Simone sings openly to ‘Mama’, a woman who was left “black and blue” by her lover, and is now the subject of gossip and derision for “actin’ like a man”. Confronting gender based inequalities while calling out hypocritical double-standards, Nina Simone sharpened the psychic tools carved out by the authoritative voices of female Blues Artists Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith, utilizing the medium to set the record straight in the fight for equality between the sexes.

While the Blues defined the experiences of Black Americans at the turn of the 20th century, Black intellectuals and Artists were struggling to rebuild a sense of cultural identity within the community. Painful, potent memories of horrific encounters throughout the South continued to haunt the collective consciousness of emancipated slaves, frustrating their efforts to move forward into the future. In Black Looks: Race and Representation, social theorist, philosopher, and intersectional feminist bell hooks writes about the importance of searching out veiled and disquieting truths in order to recover and heal from past wounds. She documents the need to protect African-American histories from revisionists writing to subvert and destroy the experiences of Black citizens, and their contributions to American culture:

One must face written histories that erase and deny, that reinvent the past to make the present vision of racial harmony and pluralism more plausible. To bear the burden of memory one must willingly journey to places long uninhabited, searching the debris of history for traces of the unforgettable, all knowledge of which has been suppressed… Theorizing black experience, we seek to uncover, restore, as well as to deconstruct, so that new paths, different journeys are possible. (hooks, 172)

hooks argues that psychological traumas remaining within the African American collective psyche are the residual side-effects of having been forcefully cut-off and disconnected from their cultural heritage and language. After the dehumanizing experiences of slavery that had controlled power of speech and observation, hooks theorizes that “systems of domination, imperialism, and racism actively coerce black folks to internalize negative perceptions of blackness, to be self-hating” (hooks, 166). Simone confronts this unmistakable absence of Black African American culture in her song “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life”(1968), in which she sings about the missing and separated family members, belief systems, and national heritage.

Ain’t got no father, ain’t got no mother
Ain’t got no children, ain’t got no sisters above
Ain’t got no earth, ain’t got no faith
Ain’t got no touch, ain’t got no god
Ain’t got no love

In one of her most popular and aesthetically beautiful compositions, “Four Women” (1966), Simone confronts and contests history exorcising the voices of four stereotyped representations of Black women whose identities span time and interracial divides. Physical identifiers such as skin color, hair, lips, and body type are incited to draw allusions to the historical experiences of Black women in America. Her lyrics recount narratives of physical and sexual abuse, interracial lineage as a result of rape, prostitution, and the deep bitterness stemming from a failure to redress the institution of slavery and check racism.

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is Aunt Sarah…

Simone’s smooth piano groove hypnotizes its audience into a seductive tempo, slowly building to a soaring crescendo finale, screaming “My name is PEACHES!”, ironic in its illusions to a sour and rotten fruit, the product of a corrupt seedling born out of oppressive brutality and murder.

In recovering the suppressed and silenced narratives of Black American history, Simone’s artistry begins to transcend time and space, creating new mediums for Black entertainers and Artists within the music industry. With an extensive crossover appeal that synthesizes musical genres of the blues, jazz, pop, folk, classical, gospel, and soul, Simone radically transformed the nature of performance art when she began appropriating elements of African tribal drums and beats into her music and stage appearances.  With the convergence of blackness into her performance art, Nina’s vocal harmonies and intonations evoked and stirred particular feelings in the mind of the listener. Recreating the vocal incantations of the African tribal spirit, she connected the search of Black Americans for a sense of inclusion, identity, place, and home, to the Saharan plains of the African continent, and the lost tongues and languages of their ancestry. The performance of humanity serves as a way of breaking out of the confines of commodification, and expressing sexuality, cultural politics, and racial identity.

Nina’s catalogue includes an extensive repertoire of self-love and actualization melodies that communicate her commitment to instilling a sense of cultural pride and transcendent beauty within the construction of the Black identity. In a powerful interview included in the Netflix documentary feature What Happened, Miss Simone, Nina speaks on her duty as an Artist to inspire audiences. Proudly declaring her music’s ability to resonate with listeners, she communicates:

That BLACKNESS, that BLACK POWER, that BLACK PUSHING them to identify with BLACK CULTURE.

Simone names her people to be “the most beautiful creatures in the whole world — Black people … inside and outside”. She expressed her militaristic and aggressive political views when she echoed the words of Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X, “By any means necessary”, detailing the lengths she is ready to go to awaken a Black cultural consciousness. Her sense of responsibility for the spiritual and mental health of the community, particularly the youth and their collective futures, is rooted in the oral histories of slaves that informed the Blues epistemology, giving Black people the psychic tools and support while navigating discriminatory and racist institutions.

While Simone has cited classical music as her first love, she arguably found her life’s calling in popular music, a medium through which she was able to disseminate her songs of social and spiritual uplift. In “The Creative Dilemma”, American social critic, author, and poet James Baldwin writes about the responsibilities of the Artist in being able to shine a light, and “illuminate [the] darkness, blaze roads through the vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place” (Baldwin, 66). His definition calls on the Artist to take nothing for granted, question the closely held values and traditions of society, and draw out the truths of history and reality. Striking a similar chord with ideas of the task and role of the Artist, Nina speaks passionately with the Black Journal on how she understands her responsibility as an Artist within the community:

An Artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times… I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty, and at this crucial time in our lives when everything is so desperate, when everyday is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people Black and White know this… We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore.

Nina Simone enabled her voice, music, and performance to serve as vessels for the collective spirit that had long been underrepresented in American culture. Channeling the love and energy of her people into the creation of a wholly unique sound, Simone’s compositions embodied the deepest lows of degradation, and the greatest elevations of pleasure.

After the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in September of 1963, and the wrongful death of four little girls —  Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14 —  in addition to the assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, Simone answered the call to become involved with the Civil Rights Movement. Channeling her uncontrollable anger and volatile energy into the song “Mississippi Goddam” (1964), she openly condemns White supremacist state violence use of unnecessary force, brutality, and lynchings to maintain control and dominance over Black citizens. The tune is ironic in its composition, her piano upbeat and catchy, but her lyrics are dark and deeply disturbing as she wails about the hypocrisies of a racist and discriminatory justice system. Simone becomes a motivating force calling on the extended community, Black and White, to movement and action: ‘Mass participation’, ‘unification”, and organization for ‘equality’. She gave the anger of her people a voice, resounding a shared urgency and impatience from the apathetic bias and discrimination of White hegemony.

Stout and unwavering in her political activism for Civil Rights, freedom, racial and political equality, Simone participated in the “Salute to Freedom” concert in Birmingham, Alabama, performing for protestors who marched from Selma to Montgomery. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968, Simone was rocked by devastation. In the days after she wrote, composed, and performed the song “Why? The King of Love is Dead” (1968) with her bassist Gene Taylor, a eulogy to the beloved and fearless Minister who led his people to political movement and non-violent resistance. The profound loss and grief of the nation was once again channeled into her music, only this time there was a notable absence of the potent anger that characterized “Mississippi Goddam”. Her voice now evoked a profound sense of deep sorrow, confusion, and heartache. Increasingly disillusioned by the slow pace of change and social justice in America, Nina left the U.S. to live out the remaining years of her life in France. Simone continued to record and perform in concert for audiences around the world, inspiring fans everywhere; from Africa to Canada, the far reaches of the Netherlands to the beaches of Brazil. On April 21, 2003 Nina Simone succumbed to her battle with breast cancer in Carry-le-Rouet, France. She was 70 years young.

Through the power of voice and music, Nina Simone captured the political energy of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, instilling a sense of pride and dignity within the hearts and minds of Black Americans everywhere. While her contributions to the political movement of the times was extraordinary, it was her ability to effectively retrace the lineages of African American history to regain a sense of new found identity in the consciousness of listeners that would secure her musical contributions to the nation’s collective sound. Indeed, Simone’s influence and inspiration can be witnessed in the music and images of modern contemporary Artists, including Meshell Ndegeocello, Erykah Badu, Jhelisa, Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, and Beyoncé, each of whom continue to push the tradition of recording Black American history through musical performance.

The Mayme A. Clayton museum library in Culver City has been instrumental in the recovery, documentation, and preservation of Black living history. Preserving a collection of over 30,000 rare and out-of-print books, the Clayton museum has created a space for healing the racial divides of the LA community. Their exhibit Audio Assault: Sights and Sounds of the Black Power Movement 1965-1975 tells the story of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. The exhibit presents a comprehensive display of recordings and images of Billie Holiday, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis.  And what collection would be complete without the voice and harmony of the incomparable, ultimate of soul-strengthening divas, the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone.

Nina Simone Splatter

Baldwin, James, “The Creative Dilemma”. American Literature. Ginn and Company. Lexington, Massachusetts. (1981)

hooks, bell. Black Looks Race and Representation. Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press

Loudermilk, A. “Nina Simone & the Civil Rights Movement: Protest at Her Piano, Audience at Her Feet”. Journal of International Women’s Studies. Vol. 14, No. 3 (July, 2013)

Moten, Fred, In the Break Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream

Woods, Clyde. from Development Arrested:The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. “The Blues Epistemology” Verso. London. New York. (1998)

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