Nina Simone

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Nina Simone is remembered as the “High Priestess of Soul” because, the consummate musical storyteller, she could weave a spell so hypnotic your heart would pound and you would lose track of time listening to her. But she never liked that moniker.

“…I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a…technique influenced by cocktail jazz…I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances, and those sorts of songs…identified with the folk movement.”

Simone could not be easily classified, nor did she want to be. She was a musical revolutionary with more than 40 albums of original songs in her discography.

Still, you may not have heard of her until now. And that is because her lyrics were so honest and so uncompromising, she was feared by the very monster she stood up to: Jim Crow America. With her songs, Nina Simone became a spokeswoman for a culture in upheaval.

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, her talent was apparent from a very young age. She started banging out tunes on the piano at the age of three, able to play anything by year. As a teen, she set her sights on becoming the first African-American female classical pianist but was rejected by the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected due to racism. Her community showed their faith, however, raising money for her to study at the Julliard School in New York City.


Then, one fateful day, the young piano prodigy now struggling to make ends meet auditioned for a singing gig at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She got the job. That's when she began belting out popular show tunes in her own unique style that fused folk and classical music, jazz and the blues. Her velvety tones and keyboard mastery attracted listeners up and down the East Coast, which prompted Eunice to change her name. She had to hide from her highly Christian parents the fact that she was working in a bar!

By 24, Nina had signed her first recording contract. It was 1957 and a revolution was brewing in the United States. Nearly 100 years before, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln outlawed slavery and proclaimed all US citizens equal in the eyes of the law. But the promise of fairness and justice remained an illusion for black Americans, especially in the Southern states where Jim Crow legislation kept them apart and decidedly not equal. It was a long time to wait for freedom, especially after having endured centuries of slavery. Black citizens all over the nation were speaking up, demanding their Civil Rights. Now.

In 1955, the US Supreme Court ended the practice of racial segregation in US public schools and six-year-old Ruby Bridges stoically ran the gauntlet of racial hate in Little Rock, Arkansas. On December 1st of that year, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat for a white man, sparking the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott and leading to another landmark Supreme Court ruling, outlawing Jim Crow legislation. The Civil Rights Act was then signed into law by President Eisenhower on September 27, 1957. Sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration campaigns followed through non-violent protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his followers.

But white-on-black violence continued. Lynchings, beatings, and disappearances prevailed. In 1963, White Supremacists spun out of control, first assassinating vocal African-American civil rights activist Medger Evers in July; then bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in September. In this incident, four little girls were killed and 22 others injured as they bowed their heads in prayer. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described it as "one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”

In response, Nina Simone wrote Mississippi Goddam which communicates that enough is enough, hurry up and give us our rights already. In Four Women, she describes the history, and legacy, of slavery in four tragically heartbreaking verses. But her song, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, would become the anthem for the Civil Rights Movement -- a song that resonates with all Americans, then as now. (See lyrics below.)

With her deep, soulful, captivating vocal style and her heartrending lyrics Nina Simone claimed her rightful place as an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. She stood up to White Supremacy in Jim Crow America. She compelled Blacks to speak up and made sympathetic Whites think about race in America in a way they never had before. Nina Simone changed lives, but it came at a price. Because of the views expressed in her songs, radio stations refused to play her music. Musical venues hesitated to book her, fearing she would speak her mind about racial discrimination from the stage.

Nina Simone died at the age of 70 in 2003 in France. Throughout her long musical career, she remained staunchly on the side for freedom and justice for all, using music as a vehicle for commentary and social change. She was a consciousness-raiser, orienting black and white audiences alike to the struggles of African-Americans, even at the sacrifice of financial freedom through commercial success. Nina sang to share her truth and the truth of her people, providing the soundtrack to the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. Her truth still resonates with great power today, proving that she is an artist and an activist to be celebrated. That’s why we are glad to claim her as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. 

May her unapologetic rage and accusatory voice continue to take no prisoners!

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Mississippi Goddam
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day's gonna be my last

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don't belong here
I don't belong there
I've even stopped believing in prayer

Don't tell me - I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I've been there so I know
They keep on saying 'Go slow!'

Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

Picket lines - School boy cots
They try to say it's a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister, my brother,
My people and me

Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You're all gonna die and die like flies
I don't trust you any more
You keep on saying 'Go slow!'
'Go slow!'

You don't have to live next to me
Just give me my equality!

Four Women
My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again

My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night

My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
My mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy

My skin is brown
My manner is tough
I'll kill the first mother I see
My life has been too rough
I'm awfully bitter these days
Because my parents were slaves

I Wish I Knew How
It Would Feel to be Free
I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holding me
I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say 'em loud say 'em clear
For the whole round world to hear

I wish I could share
All the love that's in my heart
Remove all the bars
That keep us apart
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you'd see and agree
That every man should be free

I wish I could give
All I'm longin' to give
I wish I could live
Like I'm longin' to live
I wish I could do
All the things that I can do
Though I'm way overdue
I'd be starting anew.

I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be
If I found I could fly
I'd soar to the sun
And look down at the sea
And I sing 'cause I know
How it feels to be free

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