To be young, gifted and black

Nina Simone forged a brilliant career without compromise

By null, Times Pop Music Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 27, 2003


That's what she was.

Nina Simone was a singer who one moment ached for more "sugar in her bowl," and in the next, chastised the world's cruelty in protest songs such as Mississippi Goddam, the song she wrote after four young black girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, 1963.

Simone, who died April 21, was mercurial. She was gifted, magnificent, broader than most artists dare to be. She wore African head wraps long before our culture deemed it chic.

Simone was proud. With that pride came fury.

The photographs date back to the beginning of Simone's career in the early 1950s. In so many pictures, she holds her head up, regal, chin pointed to the sky like Nefertiti. This before "black pride" was a concept to be celebrated.

A child prodigy, Simone's delicate piano playing fit like fingers interlocking with her voice, so raw, quaking with earthy timbre.

The little girl from the backwoods of North Carolina learned to perform early. She also learned of racism: At her first recital, Simone's parents were asked to remove themselves from the first row to accommodate white folks.

Simone told an interviewer in 1997 that from the very beginning her dream was to be a concert pianist. She bristled when critics labeled her a "jazz singer."

To most white people, jazz means dirt and that's not what I play.

Simone was passionate about music in all forms. She performed songs by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht as readily as folk songs, spirituals and songs from the blues. She did not tolerate comparisons to other artists and was especially incensed by critics citing similarities to Billie Holiday.

They only compare me to her because we were both black. They never compared me to Maria Callas and I'm more of a diva like her than anybody else.

A Nina Simone concert could include bits of opera - surely her heart-crushing version of I Loves You, Porgy - some Bach, pop songs from the radio, Tin Pan Alley tunes, singalongs, African chants, whatever Simone found enticing that evening. The singer may have hushed the crowd when it bustled, interfering with her concentration.

It never occurred to me that I'd be playing to audiences that were talking and drinking and carrying on. If they didn't want to listen, they could go the hell home.

She had a fierce mind. A mind that took her from the sticks of the rural South, where she was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, to the Juilliard School of Music, and for a black woman in the 1950s, that was an extraordinary feat.

She was sharp, contemplative and notoriously "difficult." Simone expressed her anger in music - songs she wrote and songs she borrowed - about the civil rights movement, Jim Crow laws, the assassination of Dr. King. Simone wrote the song that many for years considered the black national anthem, To Be Young, Gifted and Black.

Simone searched any genre to find songs that inspired her. She put to music a poem written for her by Langston Hughes. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she showed solidarity with the white "hippie" movement by recording songs from the musical Hair and others by Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Leonard Cohen. It made record companies squirm. It made Simone's feuds with them fiery.

Disgusted with the music industry and with the racism in the United States, Simone left her homeland in the early 1970s.

I didn't like America. I never did . . . I think they'll sell themselves, their souls, their brothers, sisters, and their mothers for money.

She lived a nomadic life, settling briefly in Liberia, then Switzerland, Paris, Belgium, the Netherlands.

Finally she found a home in the south of France. She remained there until she died. Simone lived in exile, by choice, from the country that did not give her respect - both as an artist and as a human being - and found herself revered where she headlined jazz festivals.

Simone's profile at home has been, at times, heightened for odd reasons: In 1987, the bright and bouncy My Baby Just Cares For Me was featured in a television commercial for a perfume by Chanel. In the early 1990s, Simone's songs were prominently featured in the action film Point Of No Return, which aroused young people's interest in her music.

No matter how one finds Nina Simone, her music is a gift. There's something candid about her singing. One falls into the cragginess of her voice, the nooks of the timbre, the history and pain in those nooks.

Simone's piano playing is ebullient. Sounds from her keyboard dart out in bright notes that are feisty, solid and brash, notes dainty and elegant yet rich in their conviction and sure of themselves - much like Simone herself.

I want to be remembered as a diva, from beginning to end, who never compromised in what she felt about racism and how the world should be, and who, to the end of her days, constantly stayed the same.

- Gina Vivinetto is the Times pop music critic.