Nina Simone was known for a few things – her powerful voice, the music she wrote and her dedication to racial equality. Born in North Carolina in 1933, Simone began her musical training early, starting piano lessons before she was old enough for school.
Remembering her artistry and activism, hundreds of mourners crowded a church in southern France on April 25 to bid farewell to her. Simone, whose raspy, soulful voice and protest songs of the U.S. civil rights movement won her lasting acclaim, died on April 21 at age 70 after a long illness in France, where she had lived for years.
Though she gained fame from her jazz singing, and was known as the “high priestess of soul,” Simone considered herself a classical musician. Simone’s music crossed the boundaries of genre. Her songs blended everything from jazz and blues to folk and spirituals. She even adapted songs by contemporary musicians, including Bob Dylan and even the Bee Gees.
Simone began making records in the late 1950s, gaining fame with her recordings of songs from the Gershwin opera, Porgy & Bess.
Using her popularity and her music, Simone, like many other jazz musicians, brought attention to the inequalities in American society. With her protest songs, she became a crucial voice in the civil rights movement. In “Mississippi Goddam,” a song about the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four girls, and the murder of Medgar Evers, she wrote “All I want is equality/ For my sister, my brother, my people and me.”
Singing the mournful lyrics, “He had seen the mountaintop and he knew he could not stop … What will happen, now that the King of love is dead?” Simone ended her set at the Westbury Music Festival with “Why? (The King of Love is Dead).” Her song selection for the concert, held on April 7, 1968, four days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reflected her determination to infuse folk and jazz with social consciousness.
After singing one song from the musical Hair, Simone sang “Backlash Blues,” a song she had written based on the poetry of Langston Hughes. She brought an anti-war sentiment together with the demand for equality in the lyrics: “Just who do you think I am/ You raise my taxes, freeze my wages/ And send my son to Vietnam./ You give me second class houses/ And second class schools/ Do you think that all colored folks/ Are just second class fools/ Mr. Backlash, I’m gonna leave you/ With the backlash blues.”
Her dedication to the struggle for equality was remembered at her funeral. “Nina Simone was a part of history,” read a message from the South African government. “Ms. Simone was an artist par excellence who lent her unique talent to contributing to the betterment of the world.”