Nina Simone “said it” when others couldn’t

This is the fourteenth entry in the series Honoring Black History.

Nina Simone’s performance of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” has long been one of my favorite songs. Her hands slink across the piano keys as her unmistakable voice seems to dance in, out and, around the melody they produce. It’s a joy to listen to and still gives me those this-is-amazing shivers that only the best music does. I don’t recall my first introduction to Nina Simone, but I remember how striking her voice was. And she used that voice to say the things others couldn’t.

Nina Simone began her professional career in a piano bar in Atlantic City in the mid 1950s and charted her first single—an arrangement of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy“—in 1958. As her popularity grew, she began drawing larger, and whiter, audiences.

In 1964, she played the renown Carnegie Hall to a mostly white audience and hit them with an ice cold bucket of confrontation entitled “Mississippi Goddam.” The song was a reaction—reportedly penned in under an hour—to two horrific events in 1963: the assassination of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young Black girls.

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie

Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying “Go slow!”
“Go slow!”

But that’s just the trouble
“Do it slow”
“Do it slow”
Mass participation
“Do it slow”
“Do it slow”
Do things gradually
“Do it slow”
But bring more tragedy
“Do it slow”
Why don’t you see it
Why don’t you feel it
I don’t know
I don’t know

The song is incendiary and the response was… unsurprising. Radio stations in the South banned it and celebrated smashing the singles (of course, I assume they had to pay for them, so at least there’s that). White people just weren’t (and really still aren’t) used to having to confront their legacy.

Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist, later recalled “If you look at all the suffering Black folks went through, not one Black man would dare say ‘Mississippi Goddam.’ We all wanted to say it. She said it.”

And “Mississippi Goddam” wasn’t the only protest song Nina Simone would pen. During that same concert series, which was immortalized on Nina Simone in Concert, she also recorded “Old Jim Crow” about the Jim Crow laws prevalent throughout the South. In addition to performing songs as acts of protest, she was also active at civil rights meetings and events like the Selma to Montgomery marches. Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr, however, Nina Simone was not against armed combat in the struggle for civil rights.

Simone went on to pen many more protest and political songs throughout her career, but the other big highlight for me—and another source of those chills—is “Young, Gifted and Black” from her album Black Gold. This one has more of a gospel feel to it, it’s powerful and uplifting and it became an anthem of the Black Power movement.

Young, gifted and Black
We must begin to tell our young
There’s a world waiting for
This is a quest that’s just begun

Truly the struggle she wrote about in 1969 is still (sadly) ongoing, but she seemed to see a light in the distance. She saw that period as a time to focus on the future, the youth, and on all of the potential that had been locked away with the subjugation of Black people. She wanted people to recognize their gifts, their talents and the power.

Oh but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say
To be young, gifted and Black
Is where it’s at

For many, Nina Simone was the musical voice of the civil rights era. She wasn’t afraid to say what others wouldn’t… or couldn’t. Her career in America doubtless suffered because of that, but she did it anyway and I can’t help but respect that.