A Raised Voice
How Nina Simone turned the movement into music.
“My skin is black,” the first woman’s story begins, “my arms are long.” And, to a slow and steady beat, “my hair is woolly, my back is strong.” Singing in a club in Holland, in 1965, Nina Simone introduced a song she had written about what she called “four Negro women” to a young, homogeneously white, and transfixed crowd. “And one of the women’s hair,” she instructed, brushing her hand lightly across her own woolly Afro, “is like mine.” Every performance of “Four Women” caught on film (as here) or disk is different. Sometimes Simone coolly chants the first three women’s parts—the effect is of resigned weariness—and at other times, as on this particular night, she gives each woman an individual, sharply dramatized voice. All four have names. Aunt Sarah is old, and her strong back has allowed her only “to take the pain inflicted again and again.” Sephronia’s yellow skin and long hair are the result of her rich white father having raped her mother—“Between two worlds I do belong”—and Sweet Thing, a prostitute, has tan skin and a smiling bravado that seduced at least some of the eager Dutch listeners into the mistake of smiling, too. And then Simone hit them with the last and most resolutely up to date of the women, improbably named Peaches. “My skin is brown,” she growled ferociously, “my manner is tough. I’ll kill the first mother I see. ’Cause my life has been rough.” (One has to wonder what the Dutch made of killing that “mother.”) If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger.
A lot of black women have been openly angry these days over a new movie about Simone’s life, and it hasn’t even been released. The issue is color, and what it meant to Simone to be not only categorically African-American but specifically African in her features and her very dark skin. Is it possible to separate Simone’s physical characteristics, and what they cost her in this country, from the woman she became? Can she be played by an actress with less distinctively African features, or a lighter skin tone? Should she be played by such an actress? The casting of Zoe Saldana, a movie star of Dominican descent and a light-skinned beauty along European lines, has caused these questions—rarely phrased as questions—to dog the production of “Nina,” from the moment Saldana’s casting was announced to the completed film’s début, at Cannes, in May, at a screening confined to possible distributors. No reviewers have seen it. The film’s director, Cynthia Mort, has been stalwart in her defense of Saldana’s rightness for the role, citing not only the obvious relevance of acting skills but Simone’s inclusion of a range of colors among her own “Four Women”—which is a fair point. None of the women in Simone’s most personal and searing song escape the damage and degradation accorded to their race.
Simone herself had been hesitant at first. Known for her sophisticated pianism, her imperious attitude, and her velvety rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy” (which, like Billie Holiday before her, she sang without the demeaningly ungrammatical “s” on “loves”), she had arrived in New York in late 1958, establishing her reputation not in Harlem but in the clubs of hip and relatively interracial Greenwich Village. Her repertoire of jazz and folk and show tunes, often played with a classical touch, made her impossible to classify. In these early years, she performed African songs but also Hebrew songs, and wove a Bach fugue through a rapid-fire version of “Love Me or Leave Me.” She tossed off the thirties bauble “My Baby Just Cares for Me” with airy insouciance, and wrung the heart out of the lullaby “Brown Baby”—newly written by Oscar Brown, Jr., about a family’s hopes for a child born into a better racial order—erupting in a hair-raising wail on the word “freedom,” as though registering all the pain over all the years during which it was denied. For a while, “Brown Baby” was as close to a protest song as Simone got. She believed it was enough.
And then her friend Lorraine Hansberry set her straight. It speaks to Simone’s intelligence and restless force that, in her twenties, she attracted some of African-American culture’s finest minds. Both Langston Hughes and James Baldwin elected themselves mentors: Simone, appearing on the scene just as Holiday died, seemed to evoke their most exuberant hopes and most protective instincts. But Hansberry offered her a special bond. A young woman also dealing with a startling early success—Hansberry was twenty-eight when “A Raisin in the Sun” won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, in 1959—she had a strongly cultivated black pride and a pedagogical bent. “We never talked about men or clothes,” Simone wrote in her memoir, decades later. “It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk.” A milestone in Simone’s career was a solo concert at Carnegie Hall—a happy chance to show off her pianism—on April 12, 1963, which happened also to be the day that Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested with other protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, and locked up in the local jail. The discrepancy between the events was pointed out by Hansberry, who telephoned Simone after the concert, although not to offer praise.
Two months later, Simone played a benefit for the N.A.A.C.P. In early August, she sang “Brown Baby” before a crowd gathered in the football stadium of a black college outside Birmingham—the first integrated concert ever given in the area—while guards with guns and dogs prowled the field. But Hansberry only started a process that events in America quickly accelerated. Simone watched the March on Washington, later that August, on television, while she was preparing for a club date. She was still rehearsing when, on September 15th, news came of the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young African-American girls who had just got out of Bible class. Simone’s first impulsive act, she recalled, was to try to make a zip gun with tools from her garage. “I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone,” she wrote. “I didn’t yet know who, but someone I could identify as being in the way of my people.”
This urge to violence was not a wholly aberrant impulse but something that had been brewing on a national scale, however tamped down by cooler heads and political pragmatists. At the Washington march, John Lewis, then a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was forced to cut the word “revolution” from his speech and to omit the threat that, absent immediate progress, the marchers would go through the South “the way Sherman did” and “burn Jim Crow to the ground.” James Baldwin, in a televised discussion after the bombing, noted that, throughout American history, “the only time that nonviolence has been admired is when the Negroes practice it.” But the center held. Simone’s husband, a smart businessman, told her to forget the gun and put her rage into her music.
She introduced the song in a set at the Village Gate a few days later. And she sang it at a very different concert at Carnegie Hall, in March, 1964—brazenly flinging “You’re all gonna die” at a mostly white audience—along with other protest songs she had taken a hand in writing, including the defiantly jazzy ditty “Old Jim Crow.” She also performed a quietly haunting song titled “Images,” about a black woman’s inability to see her own beauty (“She thinks her brown body has no glory”)—a wistful predecessor to “Four Women” that she had composed to words by the Harlem Renaissance poet Waring Cuney. At the time, Simone herself was still wearing her hair in a harshly straightened fifties-style bob—sometimes the small personal freedoms are harder to speak up for than the larger political ones—and, clearly, it wasn’t time yet for such specifically female injuries to take their place in the racial picture. “Mississippi Goddam” was the song of the moment: bold and urgent and easy to sing, it was adopted by embattled protesters in the cursed state itself just months after Simone’s concert, during what they called the Mississippi Summer Project, or Freedom Summer, and what President Johnson called “the summer of our discontent.”
There was no looking back by the time she performed the song outside Montgomery, Alabama, in March, 1965, when some three thousand marchers were making their way along the fifty-four-mile route from Selma; two weeks earlier, protesters making the same attempt had been driven back by state troopers with clubs, whips, and tear gas. The triumphant concert, on the fourth night of the march, was organized by the indefatigable Belafonte, at the request of King, and took place on a makeshift stage built atop stacks of empty coffins lent by local funeral homes, and in front of an audience that had swelled with twenty-five thousand additional people, drawn either by the cause or by a lineup of stars that ranged from Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis to Joan Baez. Simone, accompanied only by her longtime guitarist, Al Schackman, drew cheers on the interpolated line “Selma made me lose my rest.” In the course of events that night, she was introduced to King, and Schackman remembered that she stuck her hand out and warned him, “I’m not nonviolent!” It was only when King replied, gently, “Not to worry, sister,” that she calmed down.
She recalled that racial anger first arose in her when she was eleven. Born Eunice Waymon, in 1933, she was the sixth of eight children of John and Kate Waymon, who were descendants of slaves and pillars of the small black community of Tryon, North Carolina. Her mother was a Methodist preacher, a severely religious woman who made extra money by cleaning house for a white Tryon family; her father, who had started off as an entertainer, worked at whatever the circumstances required. Even during the Depression, the Waymons made a good home. Simone’s earliest memories were of her mother singing hymns, and both the house and the church were so filled with music that no one noticed little Eunice climbing up to the organ bench until, at the age of two and a half, she played “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” straight through.
Yet as rare as the little girl’s musical gifts is the way that, in that time and place, those gifts were encouraged. She began playing for her mother’s sermons before her feet could reach the pedals, and was soon accompanying the church choir and Sunday services. She especially enjoyed playing for visiting revivalists, because of the raptures she discovered that she could loose in an audience with music. At the other end of the spectrum, she was five years old when the woman for whom her mother cleaned house offered to pay for lessons with a local piano teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich. The British-born Miz Mazzy, as Eunice called her—and also, later on, “my white momma”—inspired her love of Bach and her plans to become a great and famous classical pianist. Giving a recital in the local library, at eleven, Eunice saw her parents being removed from their front-row seats to make room for a white couple. She had been schooled by Miz Mazzy in proper deportment, but she nevertheless stood up and announced that if people wanted to hear her play they’d better let her parents sit back down in the front row. There were some laughs, but her parents were returned to their seats. The next day, she remembered, she felt “as if I had been flayed, and every slight, real or imagined, cut me raw. But, the skin grew back a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black.”
Her skin was very black, and she was made fully aware of that, along with the fact that her nose was too large. The aesthetics of race—and the loathing and self-loathing inflicted on those who vary from accepted standards of beauty—is one of the most pervasive aspects of racism, yet it is not often discussed. The standards have been enforced by blacks as well as by whites. Even Harry Belafonte wrote, in his memoir, about his mother’s well-intentioned counsel to “marry a woman with good hair,” and he added, in unnecessary clarification, “Good hair meant straight hair.” (Reader, he married her.) But Nina Simone, strong and fierce and proud Nina Simone? “I can’t be white and I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise,” she wrote in a note to herself, not during her adolescence but in the years when she was already a successful performer. “If I were a boy, it wouldn’t matter so much, but I’m a girl and in front of the public all the time wide open for them to jeer and approve of or disapprove of.”
At times, it seemed that she could outdistance her feelings. In 1961, after a brief marriage to a white hanger-on at the Atlantic City club, she married Stroud, a tough police detective on the Harlem beat whom she initially sized up as “a light-skinned man,” “well built,” and “very sure of himself.” The following year, she gave birth to a daughter, Lisa Celeste, and Stroud left his job to manage Simone’s career; they lived in a large house in the leafy Westchester suburb of Mount Vernon, complete with a gardener and a maid. Although she complained of working too hard and touring too much—of being desperately exhausted—her life was not the stuff of the blues. And then, before a concert in early 1967, Stroud found her in her dressing room putting makeup in her hair. She didn’t know who he was; she didn’t quite know who she was. She later remembered that she had been trying to get her hair to match her skin: “I had visions of laser beams and heaven, with skin—always skin—involved in there somewhere.”
The full medical facts of Simone’s mental illness became public only after her death, in 2003, thanks to two British fan-club founders and friends of Simone’s, Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan, whose account of the singer’s career was aptly titled, after one of Simone’s songs, “Nina Simone: Break Down & Let It All Out” (2004). Subsequent biographies—the warmly overdramatizing “Nina Simone,” by David Brun-Lambert (2009), and the coolly meticulous “Princess Noire,” by Nadine Cohodas (2010)—have filled in terrible details of depression and violence and long-sought but uncertain diagnoses: “bipolar disorder” appears to be the best contemporary explanation. Excerpts from Simone’s diaries and letters of the nineteen-sixties, published by Joe Hagan (who got them from Andrew Stroud) in The Believer, in 2010, added the news that Simone’s personal hell was compounded by regular beatings from Stroud. The marriage dissolved in 1970, but it was many more years before she received any helpful medication.
All the more remarkable, then, the strength that Simone projected through the sixties. As the decade wore on, she began to favor bright African gowns and toweringly braided African hair styles; she became the High Priestess of Soul, and though the title was no more than a record company’s P.R. gambit—Aretha Franklin was soon crowned the Queen of Soul—she bore it with conviction. It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that her songs were mostly about civil rights. Stroud, with his eye on the bottom line, was always there to keep her from going too far in that direction. In concert, she even pulled back on “Mississippi Goddam,” singing “We’re all gonna die, and die like flies” in place of the gleefully threatening “You’re all gonna die . . .” Although she did record the classic anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit,” in 1965, and she could give the most unexpected songs an edge of racial protest (listen to her harrowing version of the Brecht-Weill “Pirate Jenny”), she had a vast and often surprising musical appetite. By the late sixties, she was so afraid of falling behind the times that she expanded her repertory to include Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, and, covering all bases, the Bee Gees. One of her biggest hits of the era was the joyously innocuous “Ain’t Got No—I Got Life,” from the musical “Hair”—which, in her hands, became a classic freedom song.
But womanly strength was in everything she sang: in the cavernous depths of her voice—some people think Simone sounds like a man—in her intensity, her drama, her determination. It’s there in the crazy love song “I Put a Spell on You,” in which she recasts the crippling needs of love (“Because you’re mine! ”) into an undeniable command. It’s there in the ten-minute gospel tour de force “Sinnerman,” when she cries out “Power!” like a Southern preacher and her musicians shout back “Power to the Lord!,” and especially when she takes the disapproving voice of the Lord upon herself: “Where were you, when you oughta been praying?” If you’d never before thought of the Lord as a black woman, you did now.
The civil-rights songs were nevertheless what she called “the important ones.” And the movement is where she gained her strength. It’s also where her private anger took on public dimensions, in the years when patience gave way entirely and the anger in many black communities could no longer be tamped down. Onstage in Detroit, on August 13, 1967—two weeks after a five-day riot had left forty-three people dead, hundreds injured, and the city in ruins—Simone, singing “Just in Time,” added a message to the crowd: “Detroit, you did it. . . . I love you, Detroit—you did it!” She was met with roars of approval, which one Detroit critic said he presumed had come from “the arsonists, looters and snipers in the audience.” Another critic, however, wrote that her show let white people know what they had to learn, and learn fast. Was she the voice of national tragedy or of the next American revolution?
And then King was shot, on April 4, 1968. Sections of Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, and more than a hundred smaller cities went berserk. Despite her rhetoric, Simone was profoundly shaken, and her views of what might be accomplished in this country only grew more bleak. At an outdoor concert in Harlem, the following summer—it’s available on YouTube—she went for broke.
Despite her best efforts, Simone failed to incite a riot in Harlem that day in 1969. The crowd received the poem as it had received her songs: with noisy affirmation, but merely as part of a performance. People applauded and went on their way. There are many possible reasons: no brutal incident of the kind that frequently set off riots, massive weariness, the knowledge of people elsewhere trapped in riot-devastated cities, maybe even hope. Simone had her unlikeliest hit that year with a simple hymn of promise, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” based on the title of a play that had been put together from Lorraine Hansberry’s uncollected writings. Hansberry, who died in 1965, had used the phrase in a speech to a group of prize-winning black students, and Simone asked a fellow-musician, Weldon Irvine, to come up with lyrics that “will make black children all over the world feel good about themselves forever.” Indeed, it is a children’s song (or it was, until Aretha took it over). Simone’s most moving performance may have been on “Sesame Street,” where she sat on the set’s tenement steps wearing an African gown and lip-synched her recording to four enchanting if slightly mystified black children, who raised their arms in victory toward the end.
It was not a victory she could believe in or a mood she could sustain. By the end of the sixties, both Simone’s career and her marriage were in serious trouble. Pop-rock did not really suit her, and the jazz and folk markets had radically shrunk; the concert stage still assured her income and her stature. And if the collapse of her marriage was in some ways a liberation she was also now without the person who had managed her finances and her schedule, and who had kept her calm before she went onstage (by forbidding her alcohol, among other means), and got her offstage quickly when the calm failed. She was left to govern herself in a world that suddenly had no rules and, just as frightening, was emptied of its larger, steadying purpose. “Andy was gone and the movement had walked out on me too,” she wrote, “leaving me like a seduced schoolgirl, lost.”
Looking back on the historic protests and legislative victories of the sixties, one may find it easy to assume a course of inevitable if often halting racial progress, yet this was anything but apparent as the decade closed. When, in 1970, James Baldwin set out to write about “the life and death of what we call the Civil Rights movement,” its failure seemed to him beyond contention. As for the black leaders who had “walked out” on Simone, they were in cemeteries (Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, King, Fred Hampton), in jail (Huey Newton, Bobby Seale), or in Africa (Stokely Carmichael), or else had “run for cover,” as she put it, “in community or academic programmes.” White liberals had diverted their efforts to Vietnam; this was now the war being fought on televisions in living rooms every night. According to Simone, “The days when revolution really had seemed possible were gone forever.”
She left the country in 1974. Travelling to Liberia with her twelve-year-old daughter, she stayed for two years, during which she performed hardly at all. She left Liberia for Switzerland in order to put her daughter in school there. Eventually, she moved to France, alone. It seems to have been only the recurrent need for money that spurred her to perform again in the United States, although she took great pride in an honorary doctorate that she received from Amherst, in 1977, and insisted ever after on being called “Doctor Nina Simone.” Meanwhile, her concerts tended increasingly toward disaster. As she now sang in “Mississippi Goddam,” “the whole damn world’s made me lose my rest.”
The remainder of her life, some twenty-five years, is a tale of escalating misery. At the worst, she was found wandering naked in a hotel corridor brandishing a knife; she set her house in France on fire, and once, also in France, she shot a teen-age boy (in the leg, but that may have been poor aim) in a neighbor’s back yard for making too much noise—and for answering her complaints with what she understood as racial insults. Yet the ups of her life could be almost as vertiginous as the downs. In 1987, just a year after she was sent to a hospital in a straitjacket, her charmingly upbeat 1959 recording of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” was chosen by Chanel for its international television ad campaign. Rereleased, the record went gold in France and platinum in England. In 1991, she sold out the Olympia, in Paris, for almost a week.
She toured widely during her final years. In Seattle, in the summer of 2001, she worked a tirade against George W. Bush into “Mississippi Goddam,” and encouraged the audience to “go and do something about that man.” She was already suffering from breast cancer, but it wasn’t the worst illness she had known. She was seen as a relic of the civil-rights era, and on occasion she even led the audience in a wistful sing-along of “We Shall Overcome,” although she did not believe her country had overcome nearly enough. Once she became too sick to perform, she did not return to what she called “the United Snakes of America.” She died in France, in April, 2003; her ashes were scattered in several African countries. The most indelible image of her near the end is as a stooped old lady reacting to the enthusiastic cheers that greeted her with a raised, closed-fisted Black Power salute.
As for jazz, Simone was largely excluded from the history books for decades. Will Friedwald’s seminal “Jazz Singing,” of 1990, mentioned her only in passing, as “off-putting and uncommunicative” and as the center of a cult “that only her faithful understand.” But Simone’s eclecticism has slowly widened the very definition of jazz singing. And, ever since Presidential candidate Obama listed her version of “Sinnerman” as one of his ten favorite songs of all time, in 2008, the cult has gone mainstream. There’s now a burgeoning field of what may be called Simone studies—Ruth Feldstein’s “How It Feels to Be Free” and Richard Elliott’s “Nina Simone” offer two highly intelligent examples—and Friedwald’s even more authoritative volume of 2010, “A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers,” includes a lengthy entry on Simone that pronounces her “more important than anyone” in her influence on twenty-first-century jazz singing.
Last year, two Broadway shows depicted Simone as an inspiration for a couple of unexpected figures: in “A Night with Janis Joplin,” she helped to provide her white soul sister with the gift of fire, and, even stranger, in the crude but enthusiastic “Soul Doctor”—which reopens Off Broadway this winter—she was the force behind the “rock-and-roll rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach. Nutty as it seemed onstage, Simone’s acquaintance with the rabbi appears to have some basis in fact, and helps to explain the Hebrew songs she performed at the Village Gate (where he also performed) in the early sixties. While it may be a show-biz exaggeration to suggest that the rabbi and the jazz singer had an affair—the show featured an Act I curtain clinch that, on the night I saw it, had its largely Orthodox audience literally gasping—the point was the universality of Simone’s message about persecution, the search for justice, and the power of music.
Back in 1979, at a concert in Philadelphia, Simone followed a performance of “Four Women” by scolding the black women in the audience about their changes in style: “You used to be talking about being natural and wearing natural hair styles. Now you’re straightening your hair, rouging your cheeks and dressing out of Vogue.” In 2009, the comedian Chris Rock made a documentary titled “Good Hair” because, he explained, his young daughter had come to him with the question “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” For an African-American child, nothing had changed since Harry Belafonte’s mother’s advice, more than half a century earlier. (According to one contented businessman in Rock’s film, African-Americans—twelve per cent of the population—buy eighty per cent of the hair products in this country.) As for skin tone, the cosmetic companies have been expanding their range ever since Iman established a line of darker foundations, in 1994, although in March, 2014, a former beauty director of Essence, Aretha Busby, complained to the Times,“The companies tend to stop at Kerry Washington. I’d love to see brands go two or three shades darker.”
Simone’s daughter has come out against the film because its story focusses on an invented love affair as much as for the casting of Saldana, although she is quick to point out how much her mother’s appearance shaped her life. (Lisa once told an interviewer that her mother would sometimes “traumatize” her because she is light-skinned—“and I’d remind her that she had chosen my father, I didn’t.”) The fight over the film ultimately extended to a lawsuit filed by the director, Cynthia Mort, against the British production company, Ealing Studios Enterprises, on the very eve of the screening at Cannes. Since then, though, the suit has been dismissed, so “Nina” may yet show up in a theatre near you. And Saldana may give a compelling performance—may well prove that she can play not only women who are sci-fi blue (as in “Avatar”) or green (as in “Guardians of the Galaxy”) but real-life black. Still, there is no escaping the fact that her casting represents exactly the sort of prejudice that Simone was always up against. “I was never on the cover of Ebony or Jet,” Simone told an interviewer, in 1980. “They want white-looking women like Diana Ross—light and bright.” Or, as Marc Lamont Hill writes in Ebony today, “There is no greater evidence of how tragic things are for dark-skinned women in Hollywood than the fact that they can’t even get hired to play dark-skinned women.” Well beyond Hollywood, these outworn habits of taste reverberate down the generations, infecting all of us.
Simone’s favorite performer in her later years was Michael Jackson. She brought cassettes of his albums with her everywhere, and recalled having met him on a plane when he was a little boy, and telling him, “Don’t let them change you. You’re black and you’re beautiful.” She anguished over his evident failure to believe what she’d said: the facial surgeries, the mysterious lightening of his skin, the fatality of believing, instead, what the culture had told him, and wanting to be white. Simone appeared onstage with him just once, amid a huge cast of performers gathered for Nelson Mandela’s eightieth birthday, in Johannesburg, in the summer of 1998. She was sixty-five years old, and photographs of the event show her standing between Mandela and Jackson, overweight yet glamorously done up, her hair piled in braids and her strapless white blouse a contrast to the African costumes of the chorus all around. But she was also very frail. In one photograph, Jackson—in his glittering trademark military-style jacket, hat, and shades—holds her left hand in both his hands, in a gesture of affection. But in another shot he has put one steadying arm around her, and she is grasping his hand for support. Few people seem aware of what is happening. The stage remains a swirl of laughter and song, a joyous African celebration. And at its center the two Americans stand with hands clasped tight—one hand notably dark, the other notably fair—as though trying to help each other along a hard and endless road.