Nina Simone had many gifts. Born Eunice Waymon, the prodigy’s rigorous piano training in the masters—Bach, Rachmaninoff, and Beethoven—from the age of three gave her a technical foundation that would dazzle audiences for decades. As a singer, performing under her stage name, she seamlessly fluttered between the realms of soul, jazz, blues, gospel, and folk, and her catalog of almost 50 studio albums earned her a deserved place among the world’s greatest entertainers. She was a sonic activist too, who galvanized her community and brought people together through song in a time of hatred and civil unrest, during an era when black Americans so desperately needed something to soothe the wounds of racial subjugation and violence at the hands of a white ruling class. Simone made her time onstage much more than an evening’s entertainment: it was also an opportunity to pointedly jab at the injustice she felt all around her, with a voice so stirring she left listeners contemplating her music long after the last note.
A reluctant singer at first (she began performing on the club circuit only after being rejected for a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music, dashing her dreams of becoming a concert pianist) she played the pop game to great success until refocusing her energy and talent on the growing 1960s civil rights movement. She was close to Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, and Malcolm X, as well as many other prominent poets, artists, writers, and thinkers. When the playwright Lorraine Hansbury, a close friend said to be one of the luminaries responsible for Simone’s social awakening, tragically died at age 34, Simone penned one of her greatest tracks in her honor: “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which took on a life of its own as a blistering anthem of the black-power era. So deep was her passion for change that, when performing 1964’s “Mississippi Goddam”—her response to the June 12, 1963 murder of activist Medgar Evers and the September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young black girls and partially blinded a fifth—it’s said she got so angry her voice broke, never returning to its former state. Her lyrics to the song illustrate why: “Hound dogs on my trail / School children sitting in jail / Black cat cross my path / I think every day’s gonna be my last / But this whole country is full of lies / You’re all gonna die and die like flies.” She was singing about the 1960s, but an unrelenting weight is felt just as heavily in Trump’s America.
She unapologetically denounced the music industry, and rejected its strict parameters and unfair remuneration for her work, as well as its blacklisting of her political music. When Dr. King was slain in 1968, she spoke of her disdain for the U.S.—its revolution was too slow to come for her, and she never permanently resided there again after his death. Simone’s enmity towards the inequalities she and many other black women faced is no more prevalent than in the song “Four Women,” a poignant snapshot of stereotypes that shadow black women. Lyrically she discusses the ways black female appearance has been magnified and ridiculed, and social mobility thwarted by the country’s history of slavery; she explores sexual objectification and racial oppression, the longing for freedom looming in the melody. She called her music “black classical music,” blasting at the school that denied her a place at age 19, yet awarded her an honorary diploma just two days before her death from breast cancer.
Having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this spring, Simone remains the musician’s singer of choice; everyone from Miles Davis to Lauryn Hill has expressed admiration for a voice at once wispy, ebullient, and roaring. The subtleties of her musicality are a mirror of her well-documented, volatile temperament. Still, Simone’s is a story we can all find ourselves in: of a dream deferred, of how life and its unpredictability can be both an exuberant jubilee of personal triumph and a harrowing struggle.