• Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

“I cried power”: Nina Simone and the Civil Rights Movement

ByMahika Ravi Shankar

Oct 20, 2022

Aged eleven, as she took to the stage to give a piano recital in her hometown, Nina Simone saw her parents being kicked out of their front row seats to accommodate for a white family. Simone refused to play until her parents were restored to their seats. Her parents were “embarrassed” as members of the audience laughed at her.

Many biographers have identified this as a pivotal moment in Simone’s life and interpret her devotion to the Civil Rights movement as stemming from this incident. For Simone, however, this was no conscious act of revolution. She hadn’t been made aware of the existence of prejudice before then. Rather, she was acting instinctively; she could not conform to societal expectations which didn’t sit right with her.

This sets the tone for how Simone participated in the Civil Rights movement: compulsively. The climate in the USA during the 1960s and 1970s was polarised and tense, and racist violence was rampant. Protest music was born out of desperation to express rage. There was no alternative in Simone’s mind than to fully embrace the revolution.

For Black History Month, I examine three of Simone’s songs which challenge the racism that was devastating American society during this period. She directed her music at White America, but also other African Americans, compelling them to become curious and aware of their rich cultural heritage. Simone understood the dangers and origins of internalised racism, that which provoked her parents’ embarrassment during her piano recital.

Simone’s protest songs are by no means ephemeral. Not only do her masterful piano technique and unmistakably powerful voice continue to astonish and captivate audiences, but the lyricism makes past atrocities ineradicable, and heed warning to present. I implore you to listen to them as you read on.

‘Mississippi Goddamn’ (1964)

She debuted this song to a mostly white audience at Carnegie Hall. It was a public expression of her unbridled rage at the people she was most angry with. She directly warns her oppressors of her community’s vehemence, as in other civil rights anthems like ‘Backlash Blues’ (1967).

“Alabama’s gotten me so upset

Tennessee made me lose my rest”

Simone is referencing a white supremacist terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young girls were killed. In the rioting that followed, the Birmingham police killed two more Black teenagers.

In most Southern states the Jim Crow segregation laws meant rights for African Americans were severely restricted. Sit-ins grew in popularity in Tennessee, and particularly Nashville, to protest this. Perhaps this is what Simone is ‘losing her rest’ about: impatience towards the seemingly ineffective policy of disciplined non-violence.

“And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn”: this refers to the murder of Medgar Evans (a field secretary of the NAACP), who was shot in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. The bleak lyrics are juxtaposed with jaunty and showtune-like music. The song is deliberately catchy, and the chorus inevitably gets stuck in your head, thereby keeping these atrocities at the forefront of a listener’s mind.

‘Strange Fruit’ (1965)

‘Strange Fruit’ was initially recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday, with lyrics from a 1937 poem by Abel Meeropol. Simone’s version was sampled on Kanye West’s ‘Blood on the Leaves’.

“Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees”

The song is about lynching in the United States, which was frequently used to punish African American ‘criminals’ around the turn of the century. However, the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was killed for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman, sparked public horror.

The song consistently contrasts pastoral settings with graphic descriptions of the lynching.

It requires a range of timbre, at times a haunting and gloomy whisper, interspersed with overpowering passion – the material is suited perfectly for Simone’s voice. At the climax, Simone holds the word ‘leaves’ for a whole ten seconds, beginning the word with emphasised volume and fading out in a slow and controlled diminuendo for the song’s quiet end, her voice quivering with emotion.

‘Four Women’ (1966)

The genealogy of black women by the 1960s was shaped by the horrific legacy of slavery. To illustrate this, Simone creates four characters in this song, representing different stereotypes of black women in American society. The song is sampled on Jay-Z’s ‘The Story of OJ’ which explores similar themes, criticising how black people (regardless of wealth or range in skin tone) are seen, first and foremost, as black.

The women in the song are “Aunt Sarah”, a slave, “Saffronia”, who is biracial and the product of rape from a white plantation owner, “Sweet Thing”, a sex worker, and “Peaches”, who expresses her bitterness about the legacy of enslavement. The song is in first-person, and each verse begins with the women describing their physical characteristics. They deem their worth based on complexions, hair style, body type, defined by whitewashed standards out of their control. As such black women remain trapped as feeling inferior.

The song builds towards “Peaches’” verse, by which point Simone’s voice has transitioned from a smooth contralto over a regular groove to an angry, impassioned howl accompanied by feverish and dissonant piano. Her fury is harnessed in adroit delivery.

In her own words, Simone dedicated her prodigal musical talent “to the fight for freedom and the historical destiny of my people”.

Illustration: Nina Simone by Mary Buchanan