My goodness, Miss Simone. What a soul. What a human being! I have always wondered about her story; who she was, what she contributed to America, music, the Civil Rights Movement and the black identity. I had heard her name throughout my life, heard her songs, heard samples of her songs by other artists, but I never knew Nina. I just finished watching her documentary on Netflix titled, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” I found it to be a beautifully cultivated and chronicled portrayal of Simone’s life and her rise and downfall as an artist, a black woman and a human being. I always imagined her as being a strong woman, simply through the pictures I’ve seen, or the sound of her voice. And that she was. It’s amazing how she could exude those qualities to someone who didn’t know very much about her. She was such a remarkable woman who advocated through her words and songs to spring curiosity within the spirits of the black people. Curiosity about their histories, ancestors, cultures and languages lost; to incite inquiries as opposed to becoming a lost race. I found that so bold and beautiful. She had the conviction to speak her soul, not just her mind. But what was the most heart wrenching was watching as she had to silence her unapologetic spirit. Silenced by her abusive marriage, the entertainment industry’s satisfaction and through her own insecurities that developed because of all this. She had to tear herself in the various directions that demanded her talent. As she lent her voice towards the Civil Rights Movement, her fame declined among her audiences. She didn’t do this to increase her popularity but addressing a necessity, a call that she needed to answer seeing the countless number of black lives dying, suffering and growing more and more into second class citizenship. She voiced her frustrations, anger and sadness in the song “Mississippi Goddam” where comedian Dick Gregory noted her courage, as no black man would have said what every black person had been thinking at that time. Mississippi Goddam.
Her story makes me think about the black body and the entertainment industry. It is never encouraged for artists to take political or social stands that go against the grain but especially musicians during the Civil Rights Movement. The fact that Simone’s decline of popularity came soon after she started to express her real thoughts, aligned herself with activists that society didn’t approve of, and spoke about her pride in her blackness, that’s when the shift occurred. The exploitation of black musicians is nothing new but it’s clear that their talents are more lifted than their well-being. And I don’t mean well-being by the standards of money, housing, and food. I’m talking about the well-being of a person’s soul. Music was not a hobby or a job to Miss Simone. As her daughter Lisa said it, music and the piano were Simone’s salvation. Her fingers flew free across the keys where you could visibly see smiles and motions of a liberated person and spirit. The question that the title poses is incorrectly directed at Miss Simone. Rather, this question should be targeted to the American society, the music industry and her husband. What happened to Simone is exactly what is supposed to happen to a toiled and restricted soul. How she was received, celebrated, loved, hated, abused, and critiqued all contributed to the turmoil she experienced in her life. So it’s not what happened to Miss Simone, but what happened to America? I have been so moved and inspired to continue learning about Simone’s story and celebrate the boldness and unapologetic spirit that is, Miss Nina Simone. Goddam.
P.S. If you couldn’t already tell, I highly recommend watching this documentary.