Discover your purpose. This is a goal that unites all of us as we try to find a meaning in life. But imagine losing all autonomy of choice due to your stipulation to answer life’s calls. In her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, Nina Simone describes how her toil and triumph were not distinctly separate, as she fell full swing into an unimagined life of activism and risk taking. She stood apart from her jazz counterparts in her approach to music and her response to injustice. Her life encompassed many of the issues thematically tackled by blues singers, but I’d argue the presence she held in the Civil Rights Movement was vastly unique to her.
“Telling yourself things are going to get better is one thing but making them so is something else” (165). To truly understand this saying is to have been entrusted with the troubles of others, and not only your own. Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymond, grew up in Tryon, North Carolina – a town conceived in carnage of American Indians, and named in the shadow thereof. This point sets the stage for a book about a woman whose life is dictated by the oppression of the White Man. Her childhood revealed the battles that would shape her life; between her beloved father’s lifelong illness and living through the Depression, Nina knew about financial and emotional struggle from the start.
Despite the challenges, Nina and her siblings were highly musical; she was started on piano lessons at a young age. Subsequently, the Eunice Waymond Fund was founded so that the town of Tryon could support her musical career, and with this money she was able to attend Juilliard for a year. Simone describes her first interaction with prejudice against her race when she applied to the Curtis Institute and was denied because she was black. She dreamed of being the first colored, woman, and classical pianist to play in Carnegie hall; she felt that she’d be happier that way, but life had different plans for her. From then on, Nina Simone reluctantly stitches a chronicle of her musical career as an unintentional necessity when she began teaching private students and playing in bars to pay the rent. When she was required to sing to keep her jobs, Eunice Waymond changed her name so that her mother wouldn’t know she was singing the ‘devil’s music’; she became Nina Simone, the up-and-coming jazz and blues singer. However, she felt that being categorized by this genre undermined her classical musicianship and her background in that she “didn’t fit into white ideas of what a black [classical] performer should be. It was a racist thing; ‘If she’s black she must be a jazz singer’” (69).
Simone did not believe in the current ‘protest music’ circulating at the time. She found it disingenuous “because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate” (90). “Mississippi Goddamn” was her first official Civil Rights song, a reaction to the Birmingham church bombing, and included an unprecedented use of profanity. Nina Simone then embraced the Civil Rights Movement through songs like “Young, Gifted, and Black” and wrote lyrics that directly stated her feelings about injustice without room for question. Becoming excessively more violent in nature, Nina began to oppose the non-violent preaching of Dr. King. Though she fantasized about a more violent response, she knew music was her best chance at a change.
There was no escaping the grip of male dominance and standards, even for someone as prolific and bold as Simone. Andy, her husband and manager, was abusive and frequently tried to stop her from taking the political stance that she craved in her music. The record company forced her to hide her 8-month, pregnant body on the album cover, Nina Sings Ellington, as a means to keep her marketable by cropping the photo to just her face. Her leverage in the Civil Rights Movement made her career take off rapidly, and soon Simone began touring internationally and advocating worldwide. After a while, she realized she had achieved “enough financial security to know that [she] can’t be pushed into doing anything [she doesn’t] want to” (175). This allowed her to finally end things with Andy; she stopped performing and fled to Africa, in an attempt to leave the sickening ways of America. This was a place of glory and refuge for Simone, but a place she knew she could not stay.
A thread of sadness echoes throughout her powerful narrative in describing the challenges that came with living such a public and powerful life. Nina mentions her drinking several times in her book, “as a means of pushing away the pain in order to keep going” (83). The birth of her daughter Lisa, though beautiful and life changing, furthered Simone’s resentment toward her rigid career. Later, she recounts her attempted suicide where she describes waking up in a hospital after swallowing a fistful of pills. I was struck by her authentic and matter-of-fact description of the circumstances and being appreciative of sustaining life. This demonstrated the degree of numbness she achieved through years of exhausting work, and I achieved a new attachment to her art.
The intersection of pain and pleasure is what encompassed Nina Simone; she couldn’t defy the unfolding of time and the effect this had on her, emotionally and musically. She was a musician, she was an artist, she was an activist – even if that wasn’t the lifestyle she wanted, it was the one she needed to live for the good of all she touched. She stood tall through her struggles, which shaped the style of jazz and blues with grace and artistry, and she became an emblem of outward expression. Her honest account of her life was both informative and tear invoking. Carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders could wear her down, “but the skin grew back again a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black” each time (27).