Say it loud, Nina was black and proud
With Nina Simone soon to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Barry Egan hails her as a genius
She is known for a cheerful song that was used in a 1987 perfume ad. There was, however, so much more to her than My Baby Just Cares for Me. It's Nina Simone - who will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month - and her music was often a brave rallying cry for the black civil rights movement in America in the 1960s and early 1970s.
She was saying to white America - and to the world - that America's African American citizens weren't putting up with hate, segregation, discrimination, injustice, violence, police dogs being set on children in the streets, murder and racism any more. She summed it up on 1964's heartrending civil rights cri de coeur Mississippi Goddam, singing jauntily almost: 'Hound dogs on my trail/School children sitting in jail/Black cat cross my path/I think every day's gonna be my last/Lord have mercy on this land of mine...'
The opening lyrics of 'Alabama's gotten me so upset, Tennessee made me lose my rest, And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam' refer to three deplorable events in recent American history. First, the Ku Klux Klan bombing Birmingham, Alabama's 16th Street Baptist Church, on September 15, 1963. They planted 15 sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device under the steps of the church. Twenty-six children were badly injured in the attack (four of them fatally). Martin Luther King Jr described the attack as "one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity".
Second, in 1960, the home of civil rights solicitor Z. Alexander Looby was bombed in Tennessee.
Thirdly, the Mississippi part, refers to the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963 outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi. The latter's assassination was what finally inspired Nina to pick up a pen and write Mississippi Goddam. Nina almost picked up a gun instead. She said in I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft: "When I heard about the bombing of the church in which the four little black girls were killed in Alabama, I shut myself up in a room and that song happened. Medgar Evers had been recently slain in Mississippi. At first I tried to make myself a gun. I gathered some materials. I was going to take one of them out, and I didn't care who it was. Then Andy, my husband at the time, said to me, 'Nina, you can't kill anyone. You are a musician. Do what you do'. When I sat down the whole song happened. I never stopped writing until the thing was finished."
Born Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933 in Tyron, North Carolina, she became an internationally recognised singer of unparalleled soulfulness, and, of course, integrity. She was a woman unafraid of confronting the injustice around her in America, no matter how hard it hurt her career. She was also a bit of diva. She was outspoken to the last. She rejected being categorised. She dismissed her music being branded jazz, saying, perhaps typically: "Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music."
"When you're young, gifted, and black/Your soul's intact," and then, "There are billion boys and girls, who are young gifted and black/And that's a fact!" Nina sang on the extraordinary To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, which became another civil rights anthem when it was released in 1969. A year later, a disillusioned Nina finally left America, making a home in France where she died on April 21, 2003 aged 70.
"My job," Nina said once, "is to somehow make [black people] curious enough, or persuade them, by hook or crook, to get them more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there, and just bring it out. This is what compels me to compel them. And I will do it by whatever means is necessary," she said paraphrasing another American black icon unafraid, like Nina, to speak up, Malcolm X.