By Gabriela Fernández
The American scenery in the 1940s showed racial segregation where social roles for white and black people were well-defined. Feminism was barely discussed by the population, leaving women with a minor role, usually that of housewives or, if black, housemaids. In this unfavourable environment in which women and African-Americans had to live, it is easy to imagine the difficulties a black woman had to face to conquer her space. It was even harder if she was challenging the status quo through music. This is the plot of the biographical documentary of Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known as Nina Simone, a pianist and activist who used her talent to raise awareness about racism in the United States and help her people to “affirm their African roots without apologies”. Watching this film is the perfect way to celebrate International Women’s Day.
The 2015 documentary What happened, Miss Simone? was directed by Liz Garbus and is available on Netflix. It tells the troubled story of Eunice’s life, reconstructed by her only daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, her ex-husband and manager Andy Strout, and several friends, activists, critics and artists who were close to her. For one hour and 42 minutes, the viewer is presented with previously unreleased recordings of the singer, rare archival images and her most famous songs.
This event proved that her life as a black woman was not easy to handle. “They didn’t want a black woman to play the piano, to play classical music”
The narrative of the movie ensures some stability to a history marked by misunderstandings, break-ups and sudden behavioural changes. Born in 1933, Eunice started playing the piano when she was four in a church choir in her hometown, Tryon, in North Carolina. As a lonely child who used to practice the piano up to seven hours a day, she also became a lonely young woman. Eunice used to play the piano and sing all night in bars to pay for her studies and to help her family. In the same period she adopted the name Nina Simone in order to detach her family name from her artistic persona. She also did not want to embarrass her mother who thought her songs were from the “devil”.
Even though she was a young phenomenon, the colour of her skin was the main reason many doors were closed to her. At the age of 19, she was denied entrance to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which was one of the most traumatic experiences she had to face throughout her life. This event proved that her life as a black woman was not easy to handle. “They didn’t want a black woman to play the piano, to play classical music,” said Simone to a French television channel.
Nina’s main goal in life was to be the African-American woman to become known for playing classical music on the piano. As she realised this could never happen, she moved on to jazz, blues and soul music for the rest of her life. In 1961, she married Andy Strout, who also became her manager. In an interview, Nina revealed that her husband would make her work like a “dog” and would even beat her. A frightened, tired, depressed and aggressive Nina was forced to work relentlessly. Lisa, her daughter, was born from her marriage with Andy and despite a troubled relationship with her mother, she ended up following Nina’s steps by becoming a jazz star. Lisa said: “As an artist, my mother was an anomaly, she was bright, she was loved.”
In the 1960s, Nina became an activist in the civil rights movement and used her music as a way to protest. “Lord have mercy on this land of mine,” is an extract of Mississippi Goddam, when Nina expressed her anger towards the pain black people were suffering. She was also engaged in the protests where she declared not to mind going without eating nor sleeping, “as long as she could do something worthwhile”. She was radical and said that it was impossible to be an artist without taking into account the troubled times the African-American people were facing. She had to pay a high price for her revolutionary side: a boycott against her by the white music industry.
“Liberia and America were connected through history in a positive way, and Liberian culture and society reflected that. It was a good place to start for any Afro-American looking to reconcile themselves to their own history”
After Nina’s political engagement, she faced a dramatic decline in her career, family life and her finances. She ended up leaving her husband and daughter and moved to the Republic of Liberia. According to her: “Liberia and America were connected through history in a positive way, and Liberian culture and society reflected that. It was a good place to start for any Afro-American looking to reconcile themselves to their own history.” Later, because of financial difficulties, she decided to return to the United States and try to restart her life as a singer.
Her frequent nervous breakdowns led doctors to think that she suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. She had to count on medicines until the end of her life in 2003. Two days before her death, Nina won a Grammy Hall of Fame and an Honorary Degree from the institute which had denied her entrance in her youth.
Nina Simone’s legacy is not limited to her brilliant music but also includes her fight for a more equal world for everyone. At a time when women were expected to be discreet, Nina dared to expose her strength and anger. It was impossible to make her be quiet because she considered herself a missionary who sang the evils of the world away, a world which she often described to be a sort of cancer that needed treatment. Her story certainly can be an inspiration for all women who, anonymously, do their best for a more egalitarian society.
Nina Simone never regretted joining the civil rights movement, even though she recognised that the choice destroyed her chance to have a career, as well as ruined her family and social life. Her aim as an activist was to shake people up until they “fall into pieces”. However, the irony was that this metaphor could better be applied to her own life as she struggled to gather the pieces and continue her story.