“And this old world is a new world and a bold world, for me
And I’m feeling good”
Music has a long history of being associated with revolutions, it is a form of activism in itself — a tool of resistance, of making accessible ideas and rousing sentiments that linger through the ages, that is transgenerational. Nina Simone’s work exemplifies this in some of the best ways. Being a Black woman making music in the (widely and violently) racist United States of America, she chose to use her skill, her talent to fuel the American Civil Rights Movement.
The struggle for civil rights had been a long standing fight in America, it took its most defined and powerful form in the late 50s and 60s, inspired and ignited by the righteous demands of the Black Panthers, where conversations about power and protest were brought up and aspirations for a greater sense of political identity were brought up. The transformation of the movement and the black power rhetoric led to a key moment of transformation of the mass consciousness. This is where music by the likes of Nina Simone and James Collier started to embody the aspirations of freedom and protest, with songs like “Mississippi Goddamn!” and “Sinnerman”.
In an interview with BBC 1999, she was asked “When you sing, do you sing from a place of anger?”
“No,” she said, “I sing from intelligence. I am letting them know that I know who they are, and what they have done to us.”
There is no doubt that Simone was an extremely skilled and talented artist, but being a black woman in the 50s and 60s came with its own problems, especially when it came to her music — the ethical dilemma of having to choose between her people and making a living, a block that capitalism often (and with great pleasure) places before many. How does one make that choice? How does the artist pick between professional success and appreciation for the self, for the art that they have, and the needs of the community? This internal struggle is as relevant today as ever, musicians often have a story to tell through their work, so how are they to, ever-so-carefully, appeal to the gatekeepers of power without losing integrity? Is that even possible? How can one make art without being honest, raw and fierce? Where will that honestly lead you?
Nina Simone too faced this conflict as she consistently tried to avoid being ‘too political’ as she gained popularity in the early stages of her career. However, she was surrounded by radical activists of the Civil Rights Movement, women and men who encouraged her to actively deal with, and take charge, of her own life in her identity as a black woman. Famously, her memoir says (about her conversations with her friend Lorraine Hansberry), “We never talked about men or clothes. It was always Marx, Lenin, and revolution—real girls’ talk.”
Simone’s music never achieved the level of popularity and recognition that she wanted it to, or that it deserved to. Her albums never made much of an impression among commercial critics and labels and her presence was thought of as off-putting, scary, and just confusing by the press and by big media houses. Her radicalisation led to her most powerful moments as a civil rights activist, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., during which time she wrote some of the most powerful black anthems that are sung till date, even though they never reached popularity the way she wished for them to. This has changed, however, with time, as her music and ideas have now given voice to the still raging Black Power and Black Lives Matter Movement.
It has been 17 years since Nina passed away, and her music has become stronger than ever. Her life, strife with conflict and contradictions, embodies many of the questions that artists today struggle with, and her work provides inspiration and aspiration to the people around the world, as it is rediscovered by new communities every day. One trembles at the power this music has to move, to transform, to create, and to destroy the unfreedom of the mind.