Art and protest


Dear Artist,

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.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1950: Photo of Nina Simone Photo by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Nina Simone (1933 – 2003)
photo, ca. 1950, by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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 Simone early album cover

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.


“To most white people, jazz means black and jazz means dirt, and that’s not what I play. I play black classical music.” (Nina Simone)



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)



  1. Thank you for this post. My husband and I watched a documentary on Nina Simone the other night that was illuminating. A fierce and amazingly talented woman who wouldn’t be stopped. One can only imagine what would have happened had she been allowed to continue her studies….I’m so grateful she moved forward and created her beautiful body of work. I love that last quote…..she still shakes people up and leaves them in pieces. As always I am grateful for this blog which I post on my artist page on Facebook. Thank you thank you, Jill

  2. Gabriella Morrison on

    I have loved Nina Simone’s music for over 40 years. Sometimes artists are influenced by situations which surround them in their formative years. Little wonder, that in her case protest was the germ and root of what she had to express. Consider that even expressing apolitically an artist is being political. Even non-action is a form of statement of political alignment.

  3. I have always been stirred by the manner in which Nina Simone inhabited her songs. She gave to them all her own experience and melancholy; made every note and syllable uniquely her own – a soul sung song. Her honesty, so clearly her guiding principle, still resonates. Resonates without having to hear the recordings. Resonates somewhere within. Can we paint that deep? Can we stir and can we illuminate even the dark corners? It seems Nina Simone did more than protest: she bore witness. Is that what stops us before a great work of art – anywhere it falls on the spectrum of representational to abstract? The artist says this is what I saw: this is what I felt.

    • Jamuna Snitkin on

      I have loved her work ever since the sixties. I had an opportunity to hear her in concert in Central Park in NYC in that era. What a dynamic experience. She lasts.A true to herself artist.

  4. Nina Simone’s music has been so moving for me since the 1960’s. Her life reflected the prejudice towards black folks and the music she loved. The film revealed aspects of her history that I had not known. Her music lives on as a reflection of the beauty of her soul.

  5. Sara….thanks for this wonderfully thoughtful post! I found it uplifting and encouraging. Everyone needs more of this…not just now, but always. Keep it up girl!!!


  6. Sara, thank you so much for your uplifting and thought-provoking messages and insights. You have taken your father’s voice and made it your own – not an easy task, I know. Looking forward to viewing Nina Simone’s documentary. Again, thank you. Laura Reed

  7. Oh, to be BOLD, FIERCE, AND UNAFRAID!!!! Yes, thank you Sara, for the reminder to get off our duffs and go for the gusto that may be just a tiny bit beyond our comfort zone. The art of living takes courage to battle the demons of ‘just ok’ and other lukewarm attitudes. I often think that singers who open their mouths and let love flow out, are the bravest performers to emulate. ( I cannot sing a note!)

  8. Thank You Sara, for this beautiful tribute to a legendary artist. I love Nina Simone’s music; what she expressed is the breathe of life, one of a kind, and irreplaceable. For me, her spirit lives on!

  9. A few days ago I had to rant on a FB post because a black person was trying to suggest that the black struggle for civil rights was somehow different from the LGBTQ struggle for civil rights- because black people can’t change the color of their skin- while gay people can pretend to be straight. I wasn’t nice. Why? Because who wants to pretend to be something they are not? There is no authenticity to that. But that’s just how horrific the repression and hatred continues to be for the LGBTQ community. So here we are- with an oppressor force still trying to discount any and all who are not just like it- usually with a religion standing behind that oppressor. Tomorrow is a (now) christian holiday that was ripped off from an earlier pagan holiday- in christianity’s attempt to undermine the world that preceded it. Sad. Pathetic.
    I’m an Abstract Fiber Artist who’s not a heterosexual. I’m not a gay artist producing gay art- because my art is not now nor has it ever been- representational. That- unfortunately- makes making protest art a little more complicated- because my art screams BEAUTY- not RAGE. But I’ve been out of the closet since before I became an adult- and I don’t let anything pass by that attempts to denigrate me- without challenging it.
    So if you’re straight and I’ve just offended you- GREAT. I’ve done my job.

  10. Jean McLaren on

    It has been amazing to read all these comments. I am 89 and have been painting since I was 70 and I belong to a group of seniors who paint together twice a week. I have been an activist all of my adult life and often slip something in my paintings that has an activist slant. People dont know what to think about how I paint but I just do it.. I dont even care if it sells I just want people to know there is often “another life out there” . Thanks to all the above comments. Nina Simone was a brave woman.

  11. roberto e.cañedo on

    what a shame that i never knew about Nina Simone, until now in my sixties. i wonder what extreme pain can one take, and channel it into their art-life? how it must hurt, and yet drive the artist to the very end. Ms. Simone never wavered, changed course, or backed down from the terrible angst that she felt all throughout her life.

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