In times like these, artists may examine their role as grabbers of attention, sources of information or providers of comfort and hope. Some find it impossible to separate a creative voice from one that reveals truth and engages action. Some wouldn’t dream of separating art from activism.
In the 2015 documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” director Liz Garbus unpacks the story of three-year-old Eunice Waymon, a classical piano prodigy in Tryon, North Carolina. The sixth child of a Methodist preacher, Eunice performed at revivals and walked across town to study Bach at her piano teacher’s house. By nineteen, she’d made it to New York but was forced to drop out of Julliard because of the fees. She applied for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but was denied, so she went to work as a nightclub singer in Atlantic City. To hide what she thought her mother would feel was a moral compromise, Eunice changed her name to Nina Simone.
Nina wrote, arranged and fused gospel, jazz, blues, American songbook, folk and pop, played jazz festivals and evolved into a titan of musical dexterity and artistic interpretation. She drew upon Bach’s counterpoint with a pathos-filled contralto voice and African-American themes in her songwriting. Increasingly, she morphed her repertoire to reflect what was happening during the Civil Rights era. She changed record labels and wrote protest songs, including “Mississippi Goddam” and “Old Jim Crow,” and marched from Selma to Montgomery. She sang “Backlash Blues,” written by her friend Langston Hughes; “Strange Fruit,” by Abel Meeropol; and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” by Billy Taylor. Her mentor Loraine Hansberry’s unfinished play, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” she turned into an anthem for a generation. In 1968, Nina Simone was at the pinnacle of her influence and artistic powers and days away from performing at the Westbury Music Fair when Martin Luther King was assassinated. In that moment and for the rest of her life, her soul flamed hotter with the clarity of her artistic purpose.
PS: “I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” (Nina Simone)
Esoterica: “I’ve had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free,” answered Nina, when asked by an interviewer what it felt like. “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me,” she said. “No fear.” When asked if the artist’s role is to be an activist, she replied, “It is my role — but I sometimes wish it wasn’t.” Of her activism she wrote, “I don’t mind going without food or sleep as long as I am doing something worthwhile to me, such as this.” Nina Simone was born in 1933 and died of breast cancer in 2003 at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, Bouches-du-Rhône, France. She was 70. The trailer for Liz Garbus’ documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone” is here; you can see the film on Netflix.
“I wish I could share
All the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars
That keep us apart
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
Everyone should be free” (From “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” by Billy Taylor)
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“I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I perform, I want them to be in pieces.” (Nina Simone)