Powerful voice for Black liberation

By Monica Moorehead, Workers World, 8 May 2003

The whole world is mourning the tragic loss of African American vocalist and pianist Nina Simone, who died April 21 at the age of 70 at her home in southern France. Progressive radio stations, especially those that are jazz-oriented, are playing her recordings without commercial interruption, including live concerts.

Simone’s unique artistry of singing while playing the piano influenced future women performers such as Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin and Laura Nyro. Like other African American performers, past and present, Simone’s musical talent was influenced first and foremost by the powerful gospel music coming out of the Black church. Born Eunice Waymon, she could play the hymns without sheet music beginning at age 2. She became the regular pianist at her parents’ church by the age of 6 in her hometown of Tryon, N.C.

She developed a love for classical music and won a scholarship to the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York, where her piano technique was developed. Although her style would always be compared to other jazz musicians, Simone considered her music to be a combination of folk, blues, classical and jazz.

While living in Harlem, she recorded her first and only top-20 hit, I Loves You Porgy, which brought her national and international recognition. She developed relationships with other well-known political artists such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones), Dick Gregory and many more.

Africa and civil rights transformed her

In December 1961, Simone traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, her first trip to Africa. It proved to be a life-changing experience. Once she returned to the United States, she became more aware and interested in the struggle for civil rights in the South, which was intensifying during that period.

Simone credits the great Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry as the person who allowed me to see the bigger picture. Hansberry, she said, saw civil rights as only one part of the wider racial and class struggle. Simone stated in her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, that she and Hansberry, author of the first major Black broadway play, A Raisin in the Sun, would talk about Marx, Lenin and revolution.

When the playwright died of cancer at the age of 34, Simone wrote and recorded a song in her honor. Its title, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, was the name of the play Hansberry was writing at the time of her death. The song went on to become known as the anthem of the civil-rights movement.

After the murders of NAACP leader Medgar Evers and then the four schoolgirls in the Birmingham, Ala., bombing of 1963, Simone wrote one of her signature songs, Mississippi Goddamn. She was asked to perform during many civil-rights events, most notably a rally during the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.

Simone was influenced by other currents in the struggle for Black liberation, especially the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and Kwame Toure, a leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee who was then known as Stokely Carmichael. She wrote and performed other important socially conscious songs such as I Wish That I Knew How It Felt to Be Free, Four Women and Why? The King of Love Is Dead, a moving tribute to the martyred Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Simone eventually left the United States following the government’s racist repression of the Black liberation movement. She was the victim of greedy record companies, unscrupulous agents and the Internal Revenue Service. This writer, as a teenager, was fortunate to see her perform and, like millions of others, will always admire her dignity and unwillingness to compromise her music and principles.