Remembering Nina Simone This Black History Month: Musical Legend and Activist

Remembering Nina Simone This Black History Month: Musical Legend and Activist

February is Black History Month and as a fellow Affinity Magazine article has noted, we often tend to leave out a lot of individuals that contributed to the Civil Rights Movement in their own way. An individual that falls into that underappreciated category is Jazz legend, Nina Simone.

A music prodigy who took to playing the piano at the tender age of three, Nina Simone had always hoped to be known as the first African-American classical pianist, but we remember her as much more than that. She is the singer, pianist, activist, and musical genius behind the protest songs of the Civil Rights Movement.

Nina had her way with music. Not only could she play the piano and compose her own songs, but she could take any Folk, Blues, and Jazz tunes, and make them her own. This shows in songs like “Feeling Good,” “I Put on a Spell on You,” and “Strange Fruit.”

“‘Saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.'”

Her capability to fuse all types of genres left music critics unsure of how to categorize her, but as she wrote in her autobiography, I Put A Spell On You, “Critics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in. It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz. On top of that, I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So, saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.”

At first, Simone was hesitant to associate herself with politics and the Civil Rights Movement, but the early sixties were her turning point after the KKK assassinated Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist, and after the bombing of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which resulted in the death of four African American girls. This left Simone angry and it prompted her to compose a song titled “Mississippi Goddam” which would later become the signature protest song for the civil rights movement marches, and in her own words, ‘I realized there was no turning back’.

Through her newfound function in the Civil Rights Movement, she did what few artists dared to do, she used her music as a means of striving for justice, and challenging the racist, white supremacist American society in the 1960s.

“‘An artist’s duty as far as I am concerned is to reflect the times. . . that to me is my duty and at this crucial time in our lives when everything is so desperate. When every day is a matter of survival, I do not think you can help but to be involved.'” 

And she later came to explain it in an interview that …
“An artist’s duty as far as I am concerned is to reflect the times. As far as I am concerned it is a choice, but 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 every day is a matter of survival, I do not think you can help but to be involved. Young people-black and white- know this that is why they are so involved in politics. We will shape and mold this country, so I do not think you have a choice. ”

Her other songs affiliated with the Civil Rights Movement include “Backlash Blues,” “Four Women,” and “To be Young, Gifted, and Black.”

Nina’s choice to stand for her rights as a Black person came at a price to pay. Radio stations began to ban and to refuse to play her music, and this resulted in her not making a lot of profit while she was alive.  With over 40 albums you would have expected her to turn over a lot of profit, but the money only came after her death.

“She spent her later career paying for being too political and fighting for the rights of African Americans, so the least we can do is to remember the artistic genius that she was.”

We must not forget the multi-talented performing artist and woman that was Nina Simone. She was fearless in her fight for equality, and her music was the medium through which she could do so. She spent her later career paying for being too political and fighting for the rights of African Americans, so the least we can do is to remember the artistic genius that she was.

If you wish to learn more about Nina Simone, I highly recommend the Netflix documentary, What Happened Miss Simone? 

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