Nina Simone is probably enjoying more attention in her afterlife than she did in life, with the notable exception of the Civil Rights movement. This is the period most of the present-day attention focuses on because this was quintessential Nina, defiant and strong, voicing the frustration and anger of the movement through songs like Mississippi Goddam.
The song was penned in the wake of the bombing of the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This moment has been captured in a recent play, Four Woman, loosely based on another song from the same era. It wasn't like Nina herself was trying to capture the moment. For her it was one more in a long line of terrible incidents that left her so outraged her first reaction was to make a zip gun and go out and shoot anyone who stood in the way of her people.
Claudia Roth Pierpont sums up Nina's tumultuous life in this article for The New Yorker. It was written back in August, 2014, in response to the anger over casting the light-skinned Zoe Saldana as Nina in a Hollywood biopic. Zoe actually had a nose job done and darkened her skin to look the part, but Pierpont wondered why not a singer-actress like Jennifer Hudson was considered for the role. The movie is finally due out this year.
I watched the documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? on Netflix. I found myself empathizing with Lisa Celeste Stroud, Nina's daughter, who told how hard it was to live with her mother when her world caved in during the early 70s. Simone had turned her back on the "United Snakes of America," first trying her luck in Liberia then Switzerland and eventually France. She often lashed out at her daughter, which became too much for young Lisa, who returned to her father in New York. It was a downward spiral for Nina after that, ending in her reaching rock bottom in Paris.
It was there that Gerrit de Bruin found her and helped salvage her career, thanks largely to Chanel picking up her song, My Baby Just Cares For Me, to promote its perfume. It doesn't seem that Simone ever reconciled herself to her life abroad. She was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and prescribed strong medications that slurred her speech and effected her piano playing so that she was never able to recapture her former self. Still, she had sold out shows at the Olympia and other venues, and made a brief return to the States in the 90s for a series of concerts.
A bitter, dispirited Nina looked back on the Civil Rights movement as the best time of her life. She had been led in this direction by her close friend, Lorraine Hansberry, who introduced her to Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, who in turn became her mentors. Nina no longer fell under the spell of her abusive husband, Andrew Stoud, who had been managing her career and cautioned her to not get too involved in protests. But, Nina chose to get right in the middle of it, singing her anthem Mississippi Goddam at a rally in Selma during the 1965 march. Her commercial appeal waned, but she became one of the strongest voices of the movement: brash, often indignant and even encouraging audiences to fight, as she did at a Harlem concert in 1969.
Her biggest song at this point was To be Young Gifted and Black, which she had written in the memory of Lorraine Hansberry, who like many others close to her had died during the Civil Rights movement. The song was a big hit and she even sang it on Sesame Street. Simone wanted the young black generation to be proud, and model itself after strong black role models.
In the documentary, Nina reflects that it would have been better to have become the classical pianist she had always dreamed of being. She had been schooled by "Miz Mazzy" back in North Carolina, but her dream was shattered when Curtis Institute of Music turned her down because of her race. This led her into a career of Atlantic City and New York night clubs, before being picked up by Bethlehem Records in 1958, where her "Chanel song," My Baby Just Cares for Me first appeared on Little Girl Blue. Now it, like so many of her other songs, have been remixed into lounge music.
I suppose this is what has made her accessible to a new generation and why young, hip Zoe Saldana wanted to play her in a movie. Even Kanye West and Rihanna have been borrowing her lyrics in their hip-hop songs. Her famous extended version of Sinnerman has become so overused that it now borders on the cliche. Hard to say what Nina Simone would have thought of all this new found attention, but there are still those who can evoke the true spirit of Nina like these four beautiful women.