The Music of Nina Simone and Her Powerful, Beautiful Blackness

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Everybody is talking about High Priestess of Soul Nina Simone right now, but for all the wrong reasons.

Last month, the trailer for “Nina,” a biopic centered on a difficult part of the legend’s life, was released and all hell broke loose. Instead of honoring one of the most iconic black women musicians in American history, the film is instead mired in controversy over the casting of lightskinned actor Zoe Saldana as Simone.

“There are many Nina Simone fans and critics who have been looking for a public way to affirm her contribution to American culture and to the black freedom struggle because she’s been largely unrecognized,” says Daphne Brooks, a professor of African American Studies at Yale and a Nina Simone scholar. “To finally have that realized through this project seems to really disregard the politics of Nina’s very overt engagement with the politics of race and radical thinking around blackness.”

The trailer, featuring Saldana sporting a bad make-up job and a prosthetic nose, has Simone fans outraged. Not only have the filmmakers been accused of basically putting Saldana in blackface, Nina’s daughter Simone Kelly blames them for several inaccuracies. The biggest one, she says, is the misrepresentation of her mother’s relationship with her manager, Clifton Henderson.

“The project has been tainted from the very beginning,” she told CNN. “Clearly, it is not the truth about my mother’s life, and everyone now knows that.”

However, the fury and frustration around “Nina,” which hits theaters this Friday, throws a spotlight on larger and more uncomfortable questions of race and gender in Hollywood and in American culture. In a way, having these high-profile conversations in the mainstream (even The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a column) is a fitting tribute to a woman whose blackness and preoccupation with racial justice profoundly informed her career in both public and private ways.

Strong Enough to Take the Pain

Simone rose to popularity in the late ‘50s and ‘60s when “girl groups” reigned supreme. Nina Simone didn’t look like Diana Ross, the kind of black female singer white audiences were willing to embrace. Her dark skin, wide nose and full lips were features disparaged everywhere – including the black community.

“We all have a story. My mother suffered. We can go all the way back to when she was a child and people told her her nose was too big, her skin was too dark, her lips were too wide,” Simone Kelly told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s very important the world acknowledges my mother was a classical musician whose dreams were not realized because of racism.”

But Simone’s story does not end there. To fans and black women across generations, she is a hero, a goddess. Her avant-garde elegance and grace defied conventions of beauty and flipped a middle finger to those who didn’t recognize it.

The Education of Nina Simone

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone started playing piano when she was three years old. Her mother was a preacher, so she began to play at church revival meetings at an early age. By the time she was seven, white music teacher Muriel Mazzanovich, who had heard Simone play at church, took a special interest in the little black girl who lived across the tracks. Mazzanovich began giving her classical piano lessons and eventually established a fund, putting together recitals to showcase Simone’s astounding talent.

With money from the Eunice Waymon Fund, Simone attended Juilliard School of Music for a year and a half. When the money ran out, she applied to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “I knew I was good enough, but they turned me down,” Simone later recalled. “And it took me about six months to realize that it was because I was black.”

It was then that Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone. To earn enough money to continue her classical piano education, she needed a side hustle. So Simone began playing at jazz clubs and changed her name so her pious mother wouldn’t find out.

Simone soon cultivated an impressive fan base and within a few years had a record deal. Her first major hit came in 1958 with an interpretation of “I Loves You Porgy” from George Gershwin’s musical Porgy and Bess. Simone used her voice to convey deep emotions – her distinctive, rich baritone sounded like no other – and her classical musical training was evident in hits like “Trouble in Mind” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

While she had explicitly avoided addressing the politics of race in her music, by the time the ‘60s rolled around, Simone felt compelled to take a stand. She had befriended members of the black intelligentsia, including Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and Stokely Carmichael, who weren’t afraid to comment on the deep-rooted racism in Jim Crow-era America.

“Mississippi Goddam” was her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black girls. While the Supreme’s Diana Ross was asking “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964, Simone was boldly telling white audiences “Oh but this whole country is full of lies/ You’re all gonna die and die like flies/ I don’t trust you anymore.” The song was banned in several southern states, and radio stations across the country stopped playing her music, returning boxes of the records cracked in half.

Writer and activist Dick Gregory calls out Simone’s courage in the Netflix documentary “What Happened Miss Simone,” which was released last year. “There’s something about a woman. If you look at all the suffering that black folks went through, not one black man would dare say, ‘Mississippi, Goddam,’ and then to have someone with her stature talking about your problems, you know how happy they had to be,” he said.

Simone as Civil Rights Activist

Performing civil rights anthems like “Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women,” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” gave Simone the reputation as the go-to for protest songs. She crossed police lines with black activists and performed “Mississippi Goddam” in front of 10,000 people at one of the Selma to Montgomery marches.

“It was very exhilarating to be a part of that movement at the time because I was needed,” she said in an interview featured in the Netflix documentary. “I could sing to help my people. And that became the mainstay of my life – not classical piano, not classical music and not even popular music, but civil rights music.”

Lord Have Mercy on this Land of Mine

But the inclusion of racial politics in her music took its toll. Soon Simone had trouble getting gigs in front of white audiences. Disillusioned, she fled to Barbados in 1970. Her career plunged into obscurity. It wasn’t until 1987 that she experienced somewhat of a resurgence with the re-release of her 1958 recording of “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” which was used in a British television commercial for Chanel No. 5 perfume.

What would Nina say about the controversy surrounding her biopic? After all, as Coates points out, “… there is something deeply shameful — and hurtful — in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic.” We don’t know, but her daughter Simone Kelly, who is also an actor and singer, says Saldana shouldn’t be the recipient of disappointed fans’ anger.

“It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so viciously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture,” she recently told Time. “It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies.”

She added: “There are many superb actresses of color who could more adequately represent my mother and could bring her to the screen with the proper script, the proper team and a sense of wanting to bring the truth of my mother’s journey to the masses. And ‘Nina,’ in my opinion, doesn’t do any of that.”

Yale’s Brooks says the controversy exemplifies the need to include more diverse perspectives in Hollywood. The team behind “Nina” is almost all white, according to Jezebel.

“We need to demand that filmmakers telling our stories are invested in and really well-versed in black history and black feminist theory,” she says. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a woman of color filmmaker, although that’s absolutely necessary. But at the very least we need filmmakers who understand that study on these topics is necessary before even engaging in such a project.”

The Music of Nina Simone and Her Powerful, Beautiful Blackness was originally published at Reverb on April 18, 2016.

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