“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free, I wish I could break all the chains holding me, I wish I could say all the things that I should say; say ‘em loud, say ‘em clear for the whole round world to hear.” Nina Simone’s cover of the Billy Taylor classic “I Wish I Knew How” expresses her feelings as a black woman living in the systemically racist society of 20th century America. A tortured soul throughout her entire life and career, Nina shared the longing to be free with her brothers and sisters and used her platform to become one of the loudest voices of a disenfranchised minority. When speaking of freedom in a 1968 interview she said “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!”
Born Eunice Wayton in 1933, Nina grew up in Tyron, North Carolina. From the age of 3 she was playing gospel songs to accompany the church choir and her talent attracted so much attention that the town started a collection to fund her classical music tuition. Setting out with the aim to become the first prominent black concert pianist, she studied for a year at Julliard and was then rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, implicitly due to her race. The rejection was brutal with Nina saying “I never really got over that jolt of racism”, and was the catalyst of self-reinvention that led to the Nina Simone we know today. After performing in nightclubs, she began to sing and mixed her classical training with blues and folk music. Her first album Little Girl Blue was released in 1957 and scored a top 20 hit with her cover of “I Loves You Porgy”.
Nina Simone is primarily known as a singer, despite never having received any vocal training. Her dark and husky tone is among the most distinctive of her era, with hints of androgyny adding to her heavy, haunting allure. However, Simone ensured that the public was aware of her training as a classical pianist by including Bach style fugues and counterpoint as well as Romantic chromaticism in her playing, helping to create her unique fusion of classical, jazz, blues, gospel, soul and folk.
Nina’s passion for and involvement with the Civil Rights Movement began with an incident at her first classical recital at the age of 12, when her parents were moved from their seats to make space for white people. In response to this, she refused to perform until her parents were returned to their original seats. This proved to be the first of many incidents when Nina would use her position to publicly condemn injustice against others.
The power of music to incite and encourage social change is a concept powerfully displayed in the life and work of Nina Simone, as she used her platform to amplify the voice of black people and black females in particular. Despite her wide range of styles, there was one overarching theme in her repertoire; racial inequality. Simone had always performed songs that reflected her African-American heritage such as “Brown Baby” and “Zungo” from her album At the Village Gate (1962). However, her first explicitly political song was “Mississippi Goddam”, written in response to the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing. Even with its relatively tame lyrics and moderate demands — “All I want is equality for my sister, my brother, my people and me” — the song was banned in several southern US states. Dozens of other songs- “Old Jim Crow”, “Backlash Blues”, “Why (The King of Love is Dead)”- further cement Nina Simone’s position as a mouthpiece at the forefront of of the civil rights movement.
Nina was an advocate of violent protest and personified the taboo emotion defined by psychiatrists William Grier and Price Cobbs as “black rage”. Instead of being hopeful and confident, her songs were written from the perspective of a black woman out of patience, with little hope for the future of America (and perhaps rightly so). Her music erupted from her like a bullet, aimed to kill and expressing black rage in a way never heard before. Nina herself said that through using her music to address civil rights issues she found “a purpose more important than classical music’s pursuit of excellence.”
The musical anomaly Nina Simone combined a range of musical genres and human emotions: from anger, to ecstasy, to joy, to longing, to fear. Her entire life was a struggle for freedom which she achieved in many ways by in breaking conventions of race, gender and genre. Her legacy is ongoing, with her music still in popular demand and being sampled by artists such as Kanye West and Lauryn Hill. Little Girl Blue continues to fight for freedom from beyond the grave.
Listen to the legendary ‘I Put a Spell on You’ below: