Nina Simone: a powerful voice for black liberation

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The King of Love is Dead, Martin Luther King Jr, Backlash Blues, Workers World, Monica Moorehead ">

Nina Simone: a powerful voice for black liberation

BY MONICA MOOREHEAD

The world is mourning the tragic loss of African-American vocalist and pianist Nina Simone, who died on April 21 at the age of 70 at her home in southern France.

Simone's unique artistry influenced women performers such as Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin. Like other African-American performers, past and present, Simone's musical talent was influenced first and foremost by the powerful gospel music of the black church. Born Eunice Waymon, beginning at age two, she could play the hymns without sheet music. She became the regular pianist at her parents' church by the age of six in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina.

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 left-wing political artists such as writers Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, poet Amiri Baraka (then known as Leroi Jones) and comedian Dick Gregory and many others.

In December 1961, Simone traveled to Nigeria, her first trip to Africa. It proved to be a life-changing experience. Once she returned to the USA, 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 Hansberry died of cancer at the age of 34, Simone wrote and recorded a song in her honour. 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 an anthem of the civil rights movement.

After the murders of National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) leader Medgar Evers and then the four schoolgirls in the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, bombing, Simone wrote one of her signature songs, "Mississippi Goddamn". The song was recorded live at Carnegie Hall in March of 1964. At the beginning of the song, she announces: "the name of this tune is 'Mississippi Goddamn', and I mean every word of it."

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 assassinated Martin Luther King Jr.

In "Backlash Blues", Simone sang: "Mr Backlash, Mr Backlash/Just who do you think I am/You raise my taxes, freeze my wages/And send my son to Vietnam/You give me second-class houses/And second-class schools/Do you think that alla coloured folks/Are just second-class fools/Mr Backlash, I'm gonna leave you/With the backlash blues."

Simone eventually left the US in 1969 due to 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.

[From the US socialist weekly Workers World.]

From Green Left Weekly, May 14, 2003.
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