Nina Simone fought through bipolar disorder and Jim Crow laws to become one of the most iconic Black singers of the 20th century.
Born February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, Eunice Kathleen Waymon was the sixth of eight children. She began playing the piano at age three in the church where her mother was a Methodist preacher.
Simone’s music training started at a young age, starting at around seven years old. She started training with the intent of becoming the first Black classical pianist. In 1950, with the help of monetary donations, she attended Julliard to further her music education. But a little over a year later, when the money ran out, she was forced to stop her studies. After being denied a scholarship to the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia for being Black, Simone got a job playing the piano in Atlantic City to help support her family after they moved to Philly to be closer to her.
After the owner told her she needed to sing as well as play the piano in order to sufficiently entertain the audience, having never sung before, she just let the music pour out of her and turned out she was pretty good. Fearful her preacher mother would find out she was singing and playing secular music, she took up a stage name and Nina Simone was born.
Simone performed on multiple stages and began making appearances on the Billboard charts. Along the way, she formed relationships with civil rights activists such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Muhammad Ali that buoyed her notoriety and gave her close proximity to the happenings of the movement.
The artist found herself simultaneously paving the way in both in music and the civil rights movement. She even lived next door to Malcolm X and his wife Betty Shabazz, allowing their children to become lifelong friends.
In June of 1963, Medgar Evers, a WWII veteran, Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, and prominent civil rights activist, was fatally shot on his own front lawn. Three months later, four Black girls, the youngest of which was only 11 years old, died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, by the Ku Klux Klan. These tragedies lit a match in Nina Simone’s heart and she channeled that blazing rage into “Mississippi Goddam.”
The song was revered within the Black community for its honesty, but ostracized by the music industries. Nina was banned from certain airwaves and boxes the record would be returned to sender, broken in two. In 1965, Nina Simone recorded a haunting version of “Strange Fruit,” which was originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol and sung by Billie Holiday in 1939.
While ‘Strange Fruit’ wasn’t her original work, the way Nina’s voice wraps around such a powerful and illustrative depiction of lynchings of Black people made an impression that has captivated for decades.
Simone’s hit "Feeling Good” is actually a rendition of a a song written by English composers Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the musical “The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd.” Simone’s rendition was released in 1965, but it wasn’t released as a single until 1994 after being used in a British Volkswagen commercial. In July 1994, it reached #40 on the UK Singles Chart.
Simone released more than 40 albums throughout her decades-long career, secured 15 grammy nominations, and while she never secured a number one spot on the charts, her music went down in history and influenced an array of legendary future artists like Aretha Franklin. On April 21, 2003, she passed away in Carry-le-Rouet, France, reportedly due to complications from breast cancer.
Nina Simone’s deep, haunting vocals continue to serve as not only a source of encouragement, but also a capsule to the past for the civic leaders of today looking to evoke change for the Black community and the world overall. Songs penned by the “High Priestess of Soul” has also been sampled by hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, 50 Cent, and the late Prodigy of Mobb Deep, innovations that have brought fans back to the roots of rap and unified many through the nuances of the Black experience.
The best way to face the heartbreaking details of Nina Simone’s personal life is with deep appreciation for the fearlessness with which she approached life, the music that flowed from her fingers, and the voice that uplifted millions in song and spirit.