“There’s no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.” – Nina Simone
When James Baldwin feared that the civil rights movement was losing steam in 1971 and music was becoming more commercial, it was his friend Nina Simone who he celebrated as she continued to extol the virtues of liberty in her songs proving herself to be an evergreen supporter of progress. This defiant use of music as a unifier was something that was always part of her arsenal from an early age.
As Nick Cave once wrote: “The great Nina Simone was a living grievance machine — her race, her gender, her misused talents (she wanted to be a classical pianist) — and this rage infused all her work, and is what makes it so multi-layered. Even her most beautiful love songs, which I count as some of the most incandescent works of art ever recorded, were marinated in a sense of resentment and contempt for the workings of the world. It is this exhilarating collision of opposing forces — love and scorn — that makes Nina Simone’s existential and political protestations so compelling.”
That full welter of emotions soars to the fore of her classic track ‘Mississippi Goddam’ from 1964, an anthem that she declared her first civil rights song. She performed it over groundbreaking three nights at the Carnegie Hall and these recordings were dubbed together to form the finished track that later appeared on the record Nina Simone in Concert.
When Simone heard of the appalling atrocities of the racially motivated murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers in Mississippi, as we all as the killing of four black children in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, she set about a soulful entreaty that probed at the problem. Simone grabbed her notebook, sat at her piano and penned the song in an outpouring of grief that took no more than 20 minutes for her to write. Sadly, the song would be banned by various Southern radio stations who snapped the tapes in half.
Perhaps the speed in which she wrote the song is an indicator of the fact that she always had her finger to the pulse of society, and she always sought to change it for the better. After all, when Simone was merely 12 years old, she was billed to play a church revival. She resolutely refused to play, even at this tender age, after she was told that her parents had to sit at the back of the hall.
Eventually, the situation was resolved and Simone was lauded by those in attendance. The scarring incident, however, instilled in her a view of activism from the get-go. It is one that would prove vital throughout her life. As she once said: “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”