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Nina Simone and me: An artist and activist revisited

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02:01 - Source: CNN
Iconic song inspired by civil rights fight

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Nina Simone sacrificed her musical career for her activism

She wrote songs that became anthems of the civil rights movement

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in July 2015 and has been updated. Learn more about Nina Simone and other revolutionary artists on CNN’s original series “Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History” Thursday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

CNN —  

I was surfing online when I stumbled upon a mural in Baltimore painted by artist Ernest Shaw. It’s a three-headed portrait of civil rights icons: James Baldwin, Malcolm X and, of course, Nina Simone.

Even within the boundaries of my computer screen, the painting on the side of a building at 401 Lafayette Street was powerful.

Artist Ernest Shaw painted Nina Simone in his Baltimore civil rights mural.
Courtesy Ernest Shaw
Artist Ernest Shaw painted Nina Simone in his Baltimore civil rights mural.

Curious that the artist had chosen Simone as part of the trifecta, I dialed Shaw, a 41-year-old teacher at the Maryland Academy of Technology & Health Sciences. He’s taught kids at Baltimore city schools for 14 years and is keen to mentor inner-city youth in some artistic way.

“I understand why you chose Malcolm and Baldwin. But why Nina?” I asked Shaw.

The answer was immediate.

“I have the utmost respect for her because she stood up for her beliefs. She sacrificed her career for her activism,” Shaw said.

Baltimore artist Ernest Shaw has painted Nina Simone numerous times.
Courtesty Ernest Shaw
Baltimore artist Ernest Shaw has painted Nina Simone numerous times.

And that kind of activism could not be more relevant today, he said, given all that has transpired since the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014.

Shaw and I spoke about Simone as artist and activist.

He told me he’d been raised by parents who were adamant about exposing him to the history and culture of black America. Simone was part of the learning process.

“Malcolm X touched me in my 20s; Baldwin in my 30s. Now in my 40s, as I am watching my daughter grow into womanhood, it’s Nina Simone,” he told me. Her biography, he said, “could be a case study for what a lot of black women deal with. And she chose to deal it with it head on.”

New recognition for singer-activist

Yet few in America know Simone’s story. In my own circle of friends and colleagues, mention of the singer’s name often gets this reaction: “Nina who?”

I’m hopeful that will change. Simone, it seems, may finally be getting her due.

A new documentary by filmmaker Liz Garbus, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” opened in theaters in 2015 and is streaming on Netflix. And though the film has its flaws, it serves as a good introduction to Simone. Sony Music has released “Nina Revisited,” an accompanying all-star tribute album featuring 16 songs. And a Hollywood biopic, albeit troubled, hit theaters in April 2016.

There is no better time perhaps to enter the stark, stalwart and sensual world of Simone. In the aftermath of nationwide police brutality protests and tragedies like the 2015 slaughter of black lives in a Charleston church, Simone’s music is as relevant as it was when she first turned her music into a vehicle for activism.

She became known as the voice of the civil rights movement with songs like “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Mississippi Goddam,” a visceral response to the 1963 killings of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and four girls in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

For that, Simone paid a price. Garbus’ documentary shows how Simone never gained the kind of celebrity that she deserved. Radio stations refused to play her music; venues were hesitant to book her. They feared she would speak her mind on stage and mince no words in lashing out against injustice and discrimination.

Had it not been for her outspokenness, her principles, she might have gained the fame of an Aretha Franklin or Diana Ross.

But as it were, Nina Simone never relished a string of Number 1 hits. But, she changed lives. Like mine. She made me think about race in America in a way I never had before.

Simone brought me awareness

I watched the documentary for a fourth time the week it debuted and thought back to a solitary and anguished drive home I made many decades ago from Florida’s death row. The condemned man told me that he found solace in Marvin Gaye’s 1971 anthem “Inner City Blues.”

But several years before, Simone had recorded a piece that was equally powerful. It was that song that made me, still a teenager, ponder the structure of the lives of people around me in small-town Florida.

Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash/ Just who do you think I am? /You raise my taxes, freeze my wages /And send my son to Vietnam

I listened to the song again as Florida prepared for that man’s execution. He had just recounted to me a life of growing up poor and black in the American South.

You give me second class houses /And second class schools /Do you think that all colored folks /Are just second class fools?

Live oaks shimmied by unnoticed as I lost myself in Simone’s voice. I was a young reporter wrestling with the execution of a man – whether guilty or not – who I believed had not received a fair trial.

Mr. Backlash /I’m gonna leave you /With the backlash blues

Simone wrote “Backlash Blues” with the writer Langston Hughes and it stopped me cold the first time I heard it in the late 1970s. Until then, I had been an immigrant girl from India, influenced heavily by the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

Tagore, India’s only Nobel Prize-winning writer, was brilliant in his artistry. His poetry made me think, too. About freedom and speaking out against wrongs.