Nina Simone dreams us as we dream her. She puts a spell on us and we like it. She asks, “Must we kill at every turn?” She moves our blood and bones and soul to resist the violence.
Her piano rolls us and makes our eyes the black keys and our hearts the smooth ivory ecstasy.
If we want to be protest singers, it’s important to look to Nina Simone for a sublime example of how it’s done. She articulates our pain, joy, loneliness, love, outrage, and demand for change, and teaches us that feeling is the most essential aspect of creating, “Don’t put nothing in it unless you feel it.”
Nina Simone’s songs played a crucial role in the momentum of the civil rights movement. Her intoxicatingly gorgeous voice speaking out for social justice and treating all people with dignity and equality has resonated with thousands of people around the world.
The posthumous, 2008 compilation of Nina Simone songs and interview clips, Protest Anthology, gives a compelling look at Simone’s resistance classics – and a soundtrack for revolution that is highly relevant today. The interview excerpts in Anthology are weaved in well with the songs, and give us insights into Simone’s thoughts on her music and social engagement. In commenting on her song, “Backlash Blues,” Simone explains how whites control the economic structure of the country, and use their backlash like a backhand slap to keep people of color in check; if blacks showed resistance for injustice such as their churches being burnt down, whites took away their jobs or abducted them into the army.
In addition to the evils that Nina Simone was protesting, one of the sad things about Protest Anthology is how many of the interviews were done by stuffy guys who posed trite questions and statements to Simone, such as, “Can you comment on your music,” and, “I don’t think artists should get involved in these things [politics, fighting injustice], I think artists should be artists.”
To which Nina Simone responds poignantly with intelligence, respect and passion each time, like this:
My music is the very essence of my being…
An artist’s duty is to reflect the times, and I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians – as far as I’m concerned it’s their choice, but I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself, that to me is my duty, and at this crucial time, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved, young people black and white [and brown and red] know this, that’s why they’re so involved in politics. We will shape and mold this country or it will not be shaped and molded at all. So I don’t think you have a choice, how can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.
Simone adamantly joined the civil rights movement in the early sixties after the Alabama church bombing that killed four young black children, which received little media attention or consequence for the perpetrators. In Protest Anthology, Simone explains that after days of “pacing the floor” in outrage, she knew she had to use her songs to speak out against such injustice, and that’s when she wrote “Mississippi Goddam.”
Nina Simone was friends with some of the most important leaders of the time such as Stokely Carmichael, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Miriam Makeba, and Odetta. From 1963 on she wrote many pivotal protest songs, including “Backlash Blues,” “Why (the King of Love is Dead),” “To Be Young Gifted and Black,” and “Revolution;” Protest Anthology includes versions of each of these. The murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr. were horribly disillusioning to Nina Simone and all who sought justice. By 1968, Simone felt the civil rights movement had been repressed to the point of losing all its leaders, who were constantly being investigated and killed by the FBI. She felt betrayed by white America, and exiled herself to African and European countries for the majority of her adult life.
Nina Simone’s weapons are her voice and the beat of her keys. She is a poet of rhythm. She wrote numerous songs with quick freestyle genius out of profound sorrow and rage for the injustice she saw around her, and from love for people too. Simone captured the historical and cultural climate of her time, giving voice to the suffering of women, people of color, and youth. She conjured the spirits of people she wrote about—and you can see her invoking them in live performances such as of Four Women.
Nina Simone was particularly interested in helping black youth find their voice and their beauty. She points out that many white kids have money, parents and easy living to help them along, but “my folks got nothing and they need inspiration twenty-four hours a day, that’s why I’m here.”
We recommend listening to Nina Simone twenty-four hours a day to gain magical rhythm and be lifted, moved, enveloped in beauty and empowered. Nina Simone’s virtuoso repertoire transcends the protest genre – she invented her own blend of classical, folk, blues, gospel, pop, jazz, children’s music and poetic interplanetary crescendo – and all of her albums are worth checking out.
Here’s an interview Nina Simone did later in her career, in which she talks about politics in her music and flirts with the camera man:
Protest Anthology, Nina Simone
I Put a Spell on You: the Autobiography of Nina Simone