Rating: 4 of 5
I still remember like it was yesterday the first time I heard Nina Simone: 1993, I was fifteen and watching the movie, POINT OF NO RETURN. A mediocre film for which I’m thankful only because it introduced me to Nina’s music. From that day on, I haven’t made a feelings-based mix (yeah, I still make mix CDs) without at least one of her songs. There are few singers/musicians who evoke such pure connection like she does, for me. I’ll always wish I could’ve attended one of her live performances.
Even though I felt so deeply listening to Nina, I’m not one of those people who actively seeks out the details of an artist’s life. Maybe I’m scared their reality will shatter my perception? Perhaps it feels too invasive to seek out personal details? So it wasn’t until I heard about the 2015 documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, that I wondered how much Nina’s life and the times directly affected her music. The answer: a lot. How could it not? In Nina’s words, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times…How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.”
After watching that documentary, I looked to see if she’d written a book and sure enough, she had. While this autobiography was rather short, I appreciated hearing her story in her words. And I’m left with two thoughts:
1) what could Nina Simone have accomplished if she had not been raised/lived in a society where being Black and a woman were obstacles she had to overcome before anyone would even hear her gift?
2) why is so much that happened to Black people during her lifetime STILL happening today, and how many budding artists, inventors, entrepreneurs, scientists, etc. are being dismissed because of their race or sex? It’s maddening.
So while Nina Simone wasn’t perfect – oh, how I wish she hadn’t been as dependent on the love of a man as she was – I am happy to know more about who she was. And she will forever be someone to whom I’ll turn for an example of what can be accomplished when a woman refuses to give up on her gift.
“Although Lorraine [Hansberry] was a girlfriend – a friend of my own, rather than one shared with Andy – we never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin, and revolution — real girls’ talk (p.87).”
“I was rich and famous but I wasn’t free. Most of the decisions I made were taken in consultation with my manager/husband, accountant, lawyer and record company. Like it or not, I couldn’t do what I wanted and think about the consequences later; I had to plan months, sometimes years, ahead. So I felt part of the struggle, yet separated from it. I was lonely in the movement like I had been lonely everywhere else. Sometimes I think the whole of my life has been a search to find that one place I truly belong (p.113).”