Since Mississippi made the news recently for finally deciding to get rid of the Confederate flag, only 126 years too late, today’s #Blackcomposer late edition will be about Nina Simone (1933-2003)
Nina Simone (Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) started out on the piano at the age of 3. She gave her classical recital debut at 12; during the performance, her parents ,who were in the front row, were forced to be in the back of the hall to make room for white people. She refused to play until they got moved back to the front, a foreshadowing of her future civil rights involvement. She attended Juilliard, and prepared an audition at Curtis, but did not get in, a decision she later said was racially based. She started taking private lessons with Vladimir Sokoloff who then taught at Curtis. To fund her lessons she started playing and singing at a bar in Atlantic City, taking the stage name Nina Simone to avoid detection by her mother of playing non-classical “devil’s music.” She soon started recording pop and jazz standards, getting (bad) record contracts but ultimately losing her creative control over her work, making her indifferent to the whole recording industry.
"Mississippi Goddam" was written in less than an hour in 1963, and declared to be her "first civil rights song". This was her response to the June 1963 murder of Medgar Evers and the September 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young black girls and partially blinded a fifth. It is one of her most famous protest songs and self-written compositions. In 2019, "Mississippi Goddam" was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.Shortly after the first performance at the Village Gate , the song was recorded at Carnegie Hall, released as a single and became an anthem during the Civil Rights Movement. "Mississippi Goddam" was banned in several Southern states, ostensibly because of the word "goddam" in the title. Boxes of promotional singles sent to radio stations around the country were returned with each record cracked in half.
Simone performed the song at the end of the Selma to Montgomery marches when she and other black activists, including Sammy Davis Jr., James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte crossed police lines.
Nina went into self-imposed exile, first living in Barbados, where she had an affair with the Prime Minister, then Liberia, then Switzerland and the Netherlands, returning briefly to the U.S. but settling in France by the early 90s. She always felt that “Mississippi Goddam” ultimately harmed her career; though she said she wouldn’t change her involvement as a civil rights acitivist. In a 1986 issue of “Jet” magazine, she said “it’s hard for me to incorporate those songs now because they aren’t relevant to the times.”
Sadly, she couldn’t have been more wrong.