Many of us may know her by the name Nina Simone. A legendary artist of the 50’s whose grand talent & discipline sound remained immeasurable throughout her lifetime. Widely known for her classical/gospel/jazz roots, her music evolved as the social and political movements of the Civil Rights Era rapidly unfolded in the United States. Her exceptional piano skills and sensual voice united various audiences. She made a popular choice for television/film soundtracks and was considered the first Black concert pianist to make history. As the Civil Rights Era approached, Simone fueled a combination of great anger, energy, resentment, and passion into her performances that not only liberated her personally and lifted her to new heights, but also served a great blow to her career. Though this helped unite black communities it stirred great controversy for others, placing a great divide between her as an artist and the music business— an act that, in retrospect, saved her from insanity.
Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was living both a blessing and a curse. Her music liberated the souls of the oppressed, but, on the same token, confined her very own. As I write this, I believe it was the irony so vividly captured in her documentary What Happened, Miss Simone that speaks multitudes to me. Blooming artists like Simone, who are highly regarded and immensely adored by their audiences, experience an unimaginable pressure that comes with an often unspoken but heavy price: the burden of public scrutiny. Though it was evident that Simone’s heart and soul lied in the beauty of classical, jazz, and rhythm & blues, there was an entirely different side of her unknown to her fans and loved ones— one that she kept concealed from the public. And it was not exactly apparent in her night gigs or concert performances, but rather made evident by the social and political climate of the Civil Rights Era. One could imagine how her image as a classical jazz pianist could suppress her own desire to express the rage and sadness she felt inside for the tragedy of her people. As an act of desperation, she moved to Africa to escape the noise and havoc that she had grown to deeply resent in the Americas. Though she reconnected with an identity she hid from the public for decades and rediscovered an overwhelming sense of calm that was vastly missing her life, retrieving the same glory and fame she experienced in the states remained a challenge. This time of renewed sense of reawakening and self-enlightenment proved to be the final cusp of her career, which was sweet but, in hindsight, very much bitter to Simone as she spoke about her past in yearning and longing (not to sound trite) for what used to be, but also who she was to the public.
This leaves many questions unanswered. Is it fair to say that the social/political chaos of the time became the reason for her downfall as a professional artist? Or did the social and political demands, in actuality, pave the way for her to achieve the amount of successes she had during her career?
Though these questions may forever lie in the realm of uncertainty and unknown, one thing remains deeply embedded and achingly true in the minds and hearts of those who adored her. Her genius mind and legendary talent was one powerful enough to reveal a complexity so deep, and even so, far beyond any one’s comprehension and understanding. She touched the lives of those she understood and sincerely resonated with through her musical, heavenly gift: a true high priestess of soul, in spite of the public eye, at her very best.