They called her the “High Priestess of Soul.” Her voice was so rich, so anguished, and hypnotic that she could fill you—completely overwhelm you—with the spirit of pride and unparalleled struggle. There was inextricable power in the music of Nina Simone. She became the voice of a generation of African Americans fighting for equality in the face of segregation, discrimination, violence, and death in the American South of the 1960s, and her legacy continues to this day.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon to a North Carolina Methodist minister and a handyman preacher, Nina Simone came to prominence in jazz bars of Atlantic City, transforming popular tunes of the 1950s into unique jazz and blues renditions. Following her first records in the late 1950s, her 1959 remake of “I Loves You Porgy,” taken from George Gershwin’s famous opera “Porgy and Bess,” was a Top 10 hit and introduced television audiences to her mastery of the piano and her exquisite, arresting vocals.
While she was at first apprehensive about speaking out on issues of discrimination and black struggle, the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama overwhelmed Simone so deeply that her music would never be the same. The tone and cadence of her lyrics shifted, her attitude and confidence was impassioned like never before, and, rather than angry, her vocals became deeply anguished.
Songs like “Old Jim Crow” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” were authored at the height of civil rights turmoil in America. “Mississippi Goddam,” which was written in response to the Birmingham church bombing, is featured in a dedicated gallery in the Blanton’s current exhibition, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties. Jarring images of blacks being hosed, clubbed, and attacked by dogs frequently made the covers of national newspapers at the time. Simone did not wait for the gavel of justice to swing down on her black brothers and sisters before she spoke out, nor did she wait for the clarity and judgment of historical hindsight. She channeled her frustration into jazz and blues anthems dripping with beauty, rage, and self-identified pride.
“My job,” she said in an interview, “is to somehow make [black people] curious enough, or persuade them, by hook or crook, to get them more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there, and just bring it out. This is what compels me to compel them. And I will do it by whatever means is necessary.”
The Black Power Movement picked up speed in the late 1960s, as did the early rumblings of the fight for gender equality. Black pride began to engulf African American communities across the country, from Harlem to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, which had survived nearly a week of race riots in 1965. The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, or “the Black Woodstock” as it would come to be known, set the stage for a new cultural movement in America, where black musicians and artists of the African diaspora could rally their voices and share art and music with the black masses. Simone’s performance of a new song, “Revolution,” named after the Beatles hit, reinforced the real revolution at stake for blacks in America.
For every lyric about lynchings and the struggle for equality, Simone would write another about freedom and black pride, reinforcing her belief that African American men and women should know the beauty of their blackness. Overcome by the power of a photograph of American playwright and writer Lorraine Hansberry, Simone was inspired to write the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” named for a play produced by Hansberry at the time. The lyrics are some of Simone’s most captivating and proud.
In this clip that follows, which includes a live performance at Morehouse College in 1970—the same university in Atlanta where Dr. Martin Luther King was once a professor, and where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded—Simone speaks of the power of photography to captivate, and the inspiration behind the song. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” became one of the most triumphant anthems of the black pride movement in the 1970s. Nina Simone, who died in 2003, leaves behind an extraordinary and unparalleled musical legacy, the likes of which may not be seen for some time.
Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Blanton Museum of Art
Nina Simone’s 1965 performance of “Mississippi Goddam,” first aired on Dutch TV, is featured in the Blanton exhibition “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties”, organized by the Brooklyn Museum, and on view at the Blanton through May 10.