Nina Simone, who died at the age of 70 in late April at her home in the south of France, was the Pasionaria of American song in the civil rights era. A defiant humanist, she gave stirring expression to an experience that most white Americans could scarcely imagine, and that few black artists of her time had dared to put into words.
Simone was more than a protest singer, however. She had one of the most astonishing voices in postwar American music–impossibly deep yet unmistakably feminine, lacerating in its intensity yet also capable of disarming tenderness. To listen to her voice was to feel almost hijacked by its power. She radiated a brash, sly sexuality. “What you’re wantin’ for your man,” she sang in “Blues for Mama,” is “what he’s wantin’ too.” In another one of her remarkable blues, she asked, “Do I Move You?” It was, of course, a rhetorical question: “The answer better be yes!” A gifted composer, Simone drew on everything from jazz, blues and folk to European cabaret and Bach fugues, long before record executives came up with the term “crossover.”
Simone’s best songs had the dramatic breadth of musical theater. “Four Women,” a harrowing dirge from 1965, recounted the bitter tales of a quartet of black women of varying hues (black, tan, yellow, brown) with the succinct, unsentimental force of Weill and Brecht, in whose work Simone was steeped. Introducing “Mississippi Goddam,” her fiery response to Medgar Evers’s assassination, to a New York audience in 1964, she said: “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.”
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, into a poor family in Tryon, North Carolina. Her mother, an ordained minister, led the church choir. Gospel infused Simone’s sound, whether she was railing against “Mr. Backlash” or pleading with her lover to put “a little sugar in my bowl.” Like her friend James Baldwin, another preacher’s child, she expressed herself with an almost prophetic authority; her voice seemed to be lit by a sacred flame. “I have never believed in the separation of gospel music and the blues,” she told a writer in 1969. “Negro music has always crossed all those lines.”
The color line was an implacable fact of life in Tryon. When, at the age of 10, Simone gave her first piano recital at the town library, a group of whites forced her parents to give up their seats in the front row. In 1950 she left the Jim Crow South for New York, where she studied classical piano at the Juilliard School of Music. Four years later, while working as a singer-pianist at a bar in Atlantic City, she adopted the stage name Nina Simone, after Simone Signoret. Bethlehem Records signed her in 1957; two years later, her heartbreaking version of Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” sold over a million records.
It was in the mid-1960s, when she was recording for Philips, that Simone truly came into her own as the griot of the civil rights movement. While continuing to sing Gershwin and Weill, she became increasingly adventurous in her choice of material, putting her indelible stamp on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You,” Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” She also began to write her own songs, many of which became Movement favorites. These were not merely passionate denunciations of injustice; like the comic routines of Dick Gregory and the speeches of Malcolm X, they heralded the birth of the new black sensibility–uncompromising, ironic, salty. “You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality!” she declared in “Mississippi Goddam.” Brotherly love wasn’t on her agenda: “Oh this whole country’s full of lies/Y’all gonna die and die like flies,/I don’t trust you anymore/When you keep on saying ‘Go slow, go slow!'” The Movement naturally revered her, and H. Rap Brown proclaimed her “the singer of the Black Revolution.”
Simone’s close identification with the Black Power movement cost her dearly. Record companies seemed suddenly less eager to work with her, and in the early 1970s she decided it was time to leave the country for good. France, where she had many adoring fans, welcomed her as it had welcomed other black artists who found American racism intolerable. There was to be no second act, but the first act of Simone’s career shone brightly enough. She put a spell on us, and we are still hers.