I recall having an interesting conversation with a friend last year, the conversation with something like this.
Me: “What type of music do you listen to?”
Friend: “Oh I like jazz and blues.”
Me: “Really, do you listen to Nina Simone?”
Friend: “Who is that?”
After she expressed that she did not know who Nina Simone was, I was perplexed. If you say you are a lover of jazz and blues, then how come you don’t know the most influential jazz and blues singer of all time? So I became curious and began asking the people around me one simple question, “Do you know who Nina Simone is?” I was shocked when I discovered most people did not know of her. However, when I asked, ” I have you heard of the song, I put a spell on you?” Most of them said yes they did and expressed how much they loved the song. Then when I said, “Nina Simone is the reason why you know that song.” Their mouths dropped to the floor.
For this blog post, I decided to write about Nina Simone and her significance, so more people from my generation can learn about her impact.
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933. Growing up in Tyron, North Carolina she learned how to play the piano so well that she was able to play a piece just by ear. This extraordinary talent led her to attend the Juilliard School. Later in the years, she applied to Curtis Institute of Music to pursue becoming a classical pianist. Curtis Institute of Music was one of the most prestigious universities for music at the time. Unfortunately, Nina Simone didn’t receive a scholarship into Curtis Institute of Music. According to Nina Simone, “They didn’t allow me to start as a black classical pianist. I was refused a scholarship because I was black.”
However, her career took a surprising turn when in 1954 she started singing at Midtown Bar & Grill. At the nightclub, she sang popular songs and put her spin on it by combining the sound of jazz, classical, blues, gospel, and folk music.
It did not take long for people to notice Nina Simone’s incredible talents, and at the age of twenty-four, she found herself signed a recording label called Bethlehem Records. In 1957 she released her debut album called, Little Girl Blue, which included her hit, “I Loves You Porgy.”
After, Nina Simone’s music career skyrocketed. She released over forty albums under different record labels throughout her musical career such as The Amazing Nina Simone (1959), Nina Simone Sings Ellington (1962), High Priestess of Soul (1967) and I Put A Spell On You (1965) which peaked at number 9 on the UK Albums chart. Nina Simone’s music expanded across genres. She was appreciated by jazz, pop, folk, blues, and classical music lovers.
Nina Simone as the Voice of the Civil Rights Movement
In the 1960s, Nina Simone used the impact in her voice and became a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement. She participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches, but her main activism came from her protest music. After the assassination of Medgar Evers and the Alabama church bombings she released, “Mississippi Goddam”. Which was later banned from being played in the south.
Nina Simone also wrote the song, “To be Young, Gifted and Black”, which was a tribute to her late friend and playwright, Lorraine Hansberry.
She wrote “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968.
I love Nina Simone’s live performances. To me, she wore her emotions in her presence while performing. As a watcher, you know every emotion that she was feeling, whether she was happy, sad, or angry. My favorite live performance of hers is, “Take Me to the Water.”
Who was Miss Nina Simone?
Looking back on that conversation I had with my friend, I am no longer perplexed on why they didn’t know of Nina Simone as a jazz and blues singer. It is because Nina Simone wasn’t just a jazz or blues singer. Nina Simone was an incredibly talented woman whose impact ranges all of the world and all genres. She wasn’t just a singer, she was an activist, she was a mother, she was a creator, and she was an inspirer. I can personally can that she inspires me every day because she didn’t let anyone check her into a box.
As for my generation, I hope that we grow and we learn more knowledge about the people who impacted this world. However, I do know that to learn about this history (people of color’s history) you have to want to learn about the true history. Especially if it’s not being offered to you in school. So I end this blog post with a quote by the great Nina Simone herself.
“There’s no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.” – Nina Simone
Sunrise: February 21, 1933
Sunset: April 21, 2003