This review was published privately last year as part of five feature assignments done for the Wits Journalism Department.
MUSICAL GENIUS REMEMBERED: In the new documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? the life and music of civil rights activist Nina Simone are remembered. Photo: Wiki Commons
Eunice Kathleen Waymon, more famously known as Nina Simone sits, back up right, in front of a black grand piano. Sparkling white teeth emerge from her beaming face. Her afro is pitch black and as kinky as they come. It is 1969 and she sings cheerfully, “to be young gifted and black, Oh what a lovely precious dream.”
Later on (1976) we then see Nina sitting in front of another piano, back slightly slouched this time and speaking to a largely white audience in a fragile tone, “I’m tired.”
She starts playing but then abruptly stops and sharply points a finger at an audience member who stood up while she was singing, “hey girl, sit down! Sit down!”
At this point, her eyes are like sharp knives piercing through the girl’s ego.
This is halfway through the documentary produced by her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelley, What Happened, Miss Simone? The documentary provides one of the most thorough representations of Nina. Her daughter disapproved of the previous documentaries and films about her mother’s life, saying they never portrayed the “true Nina Simone.” The Nina that was a musical genius who despised injustice, but who also carried enormous burdens on her back. Who had massive demons. In this documentary we are shown how these demons affected not only her, but her family, friends and music.
One could argue that what each of us considers ‘demons’ is different. For her abusive husband and manager, Andrew Stroud, one of her ‘demons’ was her political activism. For him, she should have stuck to singing popular music and her career would have continued as normal.
For her daughter it was her bipolar disorder (which was unknown to both of them at the time), which created a fractured relationship between mother and daughter.
But for Nina, her demons were boundless. She couldn’t pin point them or say what they were. But she knew she was troubled.
A great feature of the documentary is the rare insight it gives into Nina’s life. For instance, in her roughly scribbled diary entries she speaks of wanting to be dead and of despising her husband.
In one of the rare interviews she speaks about participating in the civil rights movement and how that gave her a renewed sense of worth, “It was very exhilarating to be part of the [civil rights] movement at the time because I was needed. I could sing to help my people and that became the mainstay of my life. Not classical piano, not classical music, not even popular music but civil rights music,” she says.
The one event that prompted Nina to join the civil rights movement, and to write the song Mississippi Goddam which became “the soundtrack of the civil rights movement” was the bombing of a church which claimed the lives of four young black girls.
This event pushed her towards radicalism. This renewed sense of purpose was translated into her music. In Ain’t Got No (I Got Life) Nina is brutal and utterly pessimistic about black life in the United States. In the song she says, “Ain’t got no mother, ain’t got no culture, Ain’t got no friends, ain’t got no schooling, Ain’t got no love, ain’t got no name, Ain’t got no ticket, ain’t got no token, Ain’t got no God.”
As seen in the lyrics above, and in Mississippi Goddam, her lyricism showed an understanding of the bareness of black life at the time – and some might argue even now. From slavery to the Jim Crow era, blacks in the United States (and around the world) were denied a sense of place and a sense of being. And for her, translating this through music was her purpose.
As she says in the documentary, she loved black people, and she shared her hopes for a more equal future in her music. She used self-affirmatory lyrics as a fighting tool to gain and give strength to her people for a revolution. And this is why she was so popular.
Born in the Deep South Nina started playing the piano when she was 4 years old. Her first experience of racism was when her parents were forced to move to the back of the venue for a white couple during her first piano recital, “It was my first feeling of being discriminated against and I recoil in horror at it,” she said. “I never got over that jolt of racism.”
She then received classical piano lessons from her mother’s white employer, “I crossed the railroad tracks every weekend to get to Mrs Mazinovich’s [piano teacher]… In the South railroad tracks were made to divide the blacks from the whites, I was so scared,” she said.
Nina played everything from Bach to Beethoven. She dreamed of being the first black female classical pianist, but she was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music when she was 19 years old because she was black.
After her rejection she released she had to work. This led her to start playing and singing in night clubs in Philadelphia, adopting the name Nina Simone to hide from her highly religious mother.
The rest, as they say is history.
Nina Simone gave her life to music. What Happened, Miss Simone? gives only just a glimpse of Nina’s genius. “Nina Simone was a free spirit in an era that didn’t really appreciate a woman’s genius,” says Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s eldest daughter who lived next door to Nina for many years.
Nina’s genius, as depicted in the documentary and in her music, was uncontainable. Her music was the soundtrack to a very turbulent time for black people in the United States, and all over the world, “I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself in. That to me is my duty… how can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” she said.
In the documentary, Nina says that her happiest time was when she lived in exile in Liberia. When she passed away in 2003 aged 70, her ashes were spread all over the world including Liberia where hopefully, the restless soul finally rested.