Updated: Jan 6, 2019
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Nina Simone was a musical genius, and one of the greatest entertainers of all time. She began playing piano at the early age of three. She would perform in the Methodist church in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina where her mother pastored. Her first formal training was in classical piano by a white woman instructor. Eunice would travel each day by foot for miles along the local railroads that divided whites from blacks. She set out to be the first black classical pianist.
She enrolled in Julliard School of Music in New York. After graduating, she prepared and auditioned for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Still naïve to racism and social inequality, she was awakened after learning why she was denied access into the program. Her aspirations had shattered in that moment and within months she took on a new name to make ends meet.
Nina Simone’s music was iconic. Her authenticity translated seamlessly into every note, lyric and harmony. Nina’s transparency and fearlessness during a time where blacks were publicly regarded as inferior was beyond a courageous act. She was undoubtedly a movement through music.
Records like, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, Mississippi Goddam, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black were songs of despair, frustration, and freedom. These lyrics were unapologetic and came purely from the heart of a broken black woman. The tone in her voice mixed with her original composition penetrates the souls of many to this day. Nina had a way of preparing her audience through intentional monologue and song that ushers todays listener back in time.
She used her mega platform to broaden the civil rights movement. She submerged herself into the movement creating music that spoke to the struggle. The time forced her to abandon her classical roots. In doing so, she completely turned from mainstream music and became a rebel in the industry. She exposed white America with aggressive lyrics and militant content. While her music fueled people with hope and courage, it also left her to grow an un-shakeable anger and bitterness. The pressures of extreme activism in the sixties exposed demons that would surface and result in a rapid decline in both her music and personal life.
After the death of Dr. Martin Luther King and many other strong figures in that era, it seemed as though the tipping point had arrived. Nina divorced her husband, left her family and fled the country.
She passed at the age of 70 as a manic depressant from breast cancer in the South of France. Nina left with deep regret of deserting classical music but zero regrets of her involvement in the civil rights movement.
Nina Simone was the epitome of a star, and her contributions to art, culture and social justice will continue to live on for generations to come.