Why We Wear Our Crowns is a series that highlights social justice advocates from the African American community and throughout the African Diaspora. We hope that by showcasing those who dedicated their lives for us to own ours, you’re inspired to wear your crowns proudly.
February 21, 1933- April 21, 2003
Singer, Songwriter, Arranger, Pianist, Activist
There is a text by Maya Angelou that says “The matter of art is inevitably the matter of life. That is to say, art reflects life, influences and creates life.” Masterpieces come in different forms, all of which, offer the influencer the opportunity to express their lived experience in their best medium. Just as a painter has a paintbrush or an orator has their words, Nina Simone’s tool was her music. Simone was a gifted storyteller and talented musician that utilized her medium of musicality to act as a message for the masses. In doing so she enticed her listeners to wake up and take a stance on the prevalent issues happening at the time. She didn’t belt out a tune or play a note that didn’t serve a purpose and throughout her career, her music acted as a weapon for justice by any means necessary.
Before she was Nina Simone, she was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, born in small-town Tryon, North Carolina in 1933. She took to the piano at the age of three and first began her music career at her local church. As she became more skilled on the keys and developed a repertoire of classical arrangements, she aspired to become a concert pianist. Growing up as a black girl in the harsh Jim Crow South and being subject to discrimination despite her unprecedented talent didn’t deter Simone from her musical dreams. After being rejected from a musical program from the Curtis Institute of Music, for what Simone cited as racial discrimination, she moved to New York City and began her studies at the Juilliard School of Music. It was while in New York City that Simone began to venture out of the gospel background she grew up with and into other musical genres such as jazz, pop, and the blues, as she took to singing in nightclubs to make ends meet. In nightclubs she sang covers of popular songs of the day mixed with her arrangements on the keys and became well known for her dynamic and unique sound. Simone’s beginnings of being known as the “High Priestess of Soul” began as her intense, sultry voice and powerhouse classical skills on the piano drew in crowds and gave her fans with names as famous as her own.
Simone would go on to sign her first record deal at the age of 24 with Bethlehem Records where she recorded the popular songs, “I Love You Porgy” and “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” before leaving the company. It was after signing with Colpix Records in 1959, when Nina began being regarded as the performer we remember today. With a group of like-minded individuals surrounding her including Stokely Carmichael, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin that were invested and dedicated to speaking out against racial injustice, Simone began to tune her music to a much more political stance. Though Simone previously released songs that payed homage to her blackness, it was following the death of Civil Rights advocate Medgar Evers and the murder of four girls in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, that Simone was triggered to move her career into a new direction. She began to make songs that directly addressed the racial tensions of the time which gives way to why she is so highly regarded for her artistry today. Her legacy is still so palpable because the music she made at the height of the Civil Rights Movement is relevant to the suppressed issues that followed and the ever present Black Lives Matter movement today.
Her controversial song “Mississippi Goddam” (1964) which was banned on most radio stations because of it’s defiant lyrics, set Simone apart from other artists as she was unafraid of making music that made listeners uncomfortable. Simone’s stance in regards to gaining and protecting the rights of African Americans was anything but, non-violent. Her approach took her to perform her songs in civil rights meetings and also advocate for violent revolutions. Her later songs “Why (The King of Love Is Dead)” written after Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, “Four Women,” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” acted as lyrical mirrors that reflected the painful but, real issues African Americans faced during some of the most tumultuous eras of American history. Simone was revered as an activist by civil rights leaders of the time because her music articulated resistance in a way that acted as protest. Not only was she loud and brazen in the words she wrote, sang, and performed but, she did it all while being unapologetically talented, black, and a woman in an industry that so easily would congratulate white mediocrity.
Despite her significance and visibility in the music industry and in the CRM, Simone didn’t find the commercial success she was seeking and took time to reflect in Barbados in 1970. Little did she know that in an act of protest for the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam war, Simone opted out of paying her taxes and it was upon her return to the country from Barbados, that she was informed of a warrant for her arrest. To evade criminal charges, she sought refuge in Barbados and later traveled throughout Liberia and Europe before settling in France in 1992. Between the time she left the United States and found a home in France, Simone toured and performed in clubs throughout Europe and released records through various labels. Her song “My Baby Just Cares For Me” from her 1958 album “Little Girl Blue” found a resurgence in 1987 when it became a Britain Top 10 single after being used in a Chanel No.5 perfume commercial. She even made appearances in the United States where she never faced prosecution for the charges that were once imposed upon her.
However the work and music she produced in the latter part of her career didn’t give her the financial or commercial success she desired either. Her personal reputation of being combative and prone to mood swings, which were later revealed to be a result of her mental illness, led her to feel misunderstood and she reflected that in her last works. She published her autobiography, “I Put A Spell On You” in 1992 and released her final album “A Single Woman” in 1993. Her last record reflected a demeanor of the solitude she lived in and pain she felt as an artist that was never truly understood. A decade after releasing her last album, Simone passed away in her sleep, at the age of 70 in her home in Carry-le-Rout, France.
Spanning a career with nearly over 40 albums and 40 years, Nina Simone is known as an icon of American music and one of the best griots to ever take the mic. Her music and character defied standards in a way that was just as powerful and prophetic of giving a speech or marching across cities. Her artistry led her to become an inspiration for many singers, writers, poets, and creative artists who would follow in her footsteps and as it relates to the current wave of #BlackGirlMagic, Simone may very well be the prototype. She was mystifying in the way she was able to entrance and command the attention of an entire audience and confidently tell her truth as she saw fit. Nina Simone set a standard of what it means to be not only young, gifted and black, but unapologetic and unrelenting in the spirit of all it encompasses to carry the blessing and burden of blackness and she is the reason why we wear our crowns.