Watch an exclusive clip of a no-holds-barred documentary that takes a fresh look at the jazz firebrand’s life
When Nina Simone sat down at the piano, she breathed fire. But the self-described “black-classical” visionary was more than one of 20th century music’s most indomitable talents – she was also a civil rights activist, revolutionary, manic depressive, abused wife and abusive mother, among many other things.
In five tumultous years during the 1960s, the woman born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tyron, North Carolina, 1933, went from calling out America on its systemic racism on “Mississippi Goddam” to asking an audience in Harlem if they were “ready to kill” in order to establish a new black state.
Her militant stance wound up costing her a career; and yet, her songs ran the full gamut of human emotion, from pain and sorrow to joy, tenderness and regret as well as seething anger. With Simone's only child Lisa Celeste Stroud as executive producer, filmmaker Liz Garbus set out to investigate the demons that drove Simone to take on the establishment at immense personal cost – here, we present a few of the more startling facts about her life, with insights from Stroud and Garbus.
HER CAREER IN PROTEST BEGAN AGE 12
Simone's talent as a pianist revealed itself at an early age, and she performed regularly at church revival meetings as a child. She gave her first classical piano recital at the age of 12, but was unimpressed when her parents were made to sit at the back of the hall to accommodate the white people. Standing her ground, Simone refused to play unless they were brought to the front.
“Nina didn’t have a moment of dishonesty in her life,” says Garbus. “For a young girl to play a piano recital in the Jim Crow south in the 1940s and demand that her parents not be put to the back – this is a person who is incredibly bold and speaks truth to power. And she continued doing that throughout her career.”
“Can you imagine putting in five hours of practicing every day for five to seven years and you get to your audition and they reject you and it’s not because you weren’t good enough but because of how you look?” – Lisa Celeste Stroud
SHE WAS TURNED DOWN FROM CLASSICAL MUSIC SCHOOL BECAUSE SHE WAS BLACK
Strange to say it, but Simone's entire career as a popular singer hinged on an instance of racial discrimination. Throughout childhood, she dreamed of becoming a classical musician, but those ambitions were dealt a hammer blow when she was turned down for a spot at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, an injustice that would stay with her throughout her career.
“Can you imagine putting in five hours of practicing every day for five to seven years and you get to your audition and they reject you and it’s not because you weren’t good enough but because of how you look?” says Stroud. The Curtis Institute awarded Simone an honorary degree two days before her death in 2003.
SHE WAS A REVOLUTIONARY
“Artists now can flip off the police or tell an audience to get the f... out or whatever,” says Garbus. “But for a dark-skinned African-American woman to be doing it at the time... it was revolutionary. Which made a lot of people very uncomfortable, of course.” Simone's embrace of the civil rights movement would harden over the course of the 60s into a militant black separatism that saw her declare American society as “nothing but a cancer”.
The musician, who lived next door to Malcolm X in the latter part of the decade, introduced herself to Martin Luther King by striding up to him and announcing, “I'm not non-violent.” “One thing I hope the film does is help you understand the rage (that Nina felt),” says Garbus. “There were those who channelled that rage into non-violence, and there were those who believed that violence should be met with violence, and I understand all of those perspectives.”
SHE TACKLED INJUSTICE IN SONG BEFORE SOUL MUSIC GREW A SOCIAL CONSCIENCE
“Mississippi Goddam”, an outraged response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the Alabama church bombing that killed four children in 1963, was a watershed moment in the history of black protest music, released before Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, James Bown or Stevie Wonder committed their own political statements to record.
“Being a black person (in the 60s), there were certain things that it was understood you just didn’t talk about,” says Stroud. “Because if you did, somebody might get killed, and it wasn’t going to be the white folks. So there is a certain code, a certain silence in order for us to survive. But after those children were blown up in church, my mom had the guts and the courage to just say, ‘You know what? Fuck this shit.’”
SHE WAS A BIPOLAR SUFFERER
Simone’s temper routinely terrorised friends and family, who were baffled by her often violent moodswings. Her diaries reveal a deeply troubled individual prone to suicidal thoughts and who responded to beatings by her husband by professing to “love physical violence”. “It was very sad to see the depth of Nina’s depression,” says Garbus, “and she certainly said in numerous pages of her diary that she wanted to die. It makes you understand and appreciate her survival through it all.”
Simone was finally diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder in the 80s, and prescribed with Trilafon to help manage her moodswings. “My mother suffered greatly, but she also left us with pearls and gifts of wisdom,” says Stroud. “Sometimes I try to put myself in her shoes and ask what I would have done if I was her. Would I have curled up in a foetus position in the nearest closet I could find? Would I have taken a one-way ticket to Tibet? Would I have tried to commit suicide? I don’t know, but I don’t know I would have had the same strength that she did.”
HER MUSIC IS MORE RELEVANT NOW THAN EVER
The US has seen the first stirrings of a new civil rights movement of late, with anger mounting over police brutality and tragic events like the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. “Nina says in one of the interviews in the film that the stories (in her songs) are not relevant any more,” says Garbus, “but I think that today you see artists looking up to Nina as an artist and as a political leader. There’s a relevance now, just as the civil rights movement in America is gaining steam on the streets. So on that front Nina was wrong, because her music is as relevant as ever and I think artists are beginning to summon her spirit.”
What Happened, Miss Simone? will launch exclusively on Netflix on June 26