February 2019, News & Features

For some activists, music was the weapon of choice

The Falcon Forum honors Black History Month with a feature on a North Carolina native, Nina Simone.

By Garrett Davis Normally when acknowledging the icons of black history, we talk about the old revolutionaries like Nat Turner or Harriet Tubman, or the great activists and intellectuals of the civil rights era such as Malcom X, Marcus Garvey or James Baldwin. But there’s more to black history than political activism and literature; there is also music, one of the most important parts of black culture. There are many contributors to this aspect of culture – Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix – the list goes on. However, there is one artist who may not be the most talked about but is certainly one of the most talented: Nina Simone.

Nina Simone is an artist with impeccable versatility, stretching across multiple genres of music; classical, gospel, jazz, folk, pop, soul and, most importantly, blues. Born on Feb. 21, 1933, in Tyron, North Carolina, to a preacher and methodist minister, young Eunice Kathleen Waymon was shown to possess a gift for piano at the age of 3.

“I didn’t get interested in music. It was a gift from God.”

Her parents nurtured this gift, as one would expect in the South, in the church. She did not initially use her voice as her main instrument. Out of great respect to great composers like Chopin, Bach, and Beethoven, she focused on becoming a classical pianist; her dream was to become the first African-American classical pianist. Hampered by prejudice, Simone was not able to accomplish this goal.

However, she was not one to give up; showing a grit instilled in her by her parents. She went on to teach music to children in New York City, but she also began singing in bars, which got her the attention that would open up opportunities of a lifetime for her.

“Did you know that the human voice is the only pure instrument? That it has notes no other instrument has? It’s like being between the keys of a piano. The notes are there, you can sing them, but they can’t be found on any instrument. That’s like me. I live in between this. I live in both worlds, the black and white world.”

Nina Simone is often seen by many connoisseurs of music as one of those artists who was ahead of her time and underappreciated by her generation. To an extent that was because of the kind of person she was – Simone did not crave or hog the spotlight as many others would. In the early 1960s, with the Civil Rights movement well underway, Sione’s music slowly became much more topical. Rather than the usual love song, cover, or melancholic melody, she took all of that, and added social justice, with a lot of attitude. She demonstrated this attitude with racially charged on songs such as “Young, Gifted, and Black,” “Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women” and “Strange Fruit.”

“As a political weapon, it has helped me for 30 years defend the rights of American blacks and third-world people all over the world, to defend them with protest songs. To move the audience to make them conscious of what has been done to my people around the world.”
Concerns of equality were of great importance to Mrs. Simone. Discrimination had held her back from success since she was young. Eventually, she left America for Paris, a haven for many black artists – such as Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin – seeking tom practice their art in a more welcoming environment. Simone found more fame there, as many like her had during the French Renaissance.

But even then, she still sang about the struggle for equality – for example, “Backlash Blues,” which she first sang in Paris. She did all this with her voice, her piano, her afro, and a productive use of anger.

“I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

Nina was enjoying an unprecedented degree of recognition by the time she died on April 21, 2003, according to her official website (ninasimone.com). Though black Americans conquered Jim Crow and made many economic and political gains during her time, there is still work to be done. But we cannot fail to appreciate the progress we have made and we cannot forget those who helped make those gains a reality. Politicians have done a lot of work and deserve a lot of credit, but we need our artists just as much as we need our politicians.

Sometimes it is easier for an artist to speak truth to power, just as in the days of kings the court jester was the only one who who could get away with criticizing the king because it was supposedly done in jest. Musicians can be just as effective as politicians in organizing a collective voice for change without seeming as confrontational. So we must not forget our musical legends. Lyrics are meant to communicate something, but in a more beautiful way than ordinary language; to open our eyes to something we are not seeing – or don’t want to see. Music teaches us truths in ways that movies and books fail. Nina Simone was one of those legends. For this, North Carolinians – and all Americans – owe her thanks.