How Nina Simone Turned The Movement into Music

by Claudia Roth Pierpont

My skin is black,” the first woman’s story begins, “my arms are long.” And, to a slow and steady beat, “my hair is woolly, my back is strong.” Singing in a club in Holland, in 1965, Nina Simone introduced a song she had written about what she called “four Negro women” to a young, homogeneously white, and transfixed crowd. “And one of the women’s hair,” she instructed, brushing her hand lightly across her own woolly Afro, “is like mine.” Every performance of “Four Women” caught on film (as here) or disk is different. Sometimes Simone coolly chants the first three women’s parts—the effect is of resigned weariness—and at other times, as on this particular night, she gives each woman an individual, sharply dramatized voice. All four have names. Aunt Sarah is old, and her strong back has allowed her only “to take the pain inflicted again and again.” Sephronia’s yellow skin and long hair are the result of her rich white father having raped her mother—“Between two worlds I do belong”—and Sweet Thing, a prostitute, has tan skin and a smiling bravado that seduced at least some of the eager Dutch listeners into the mistake of smiling, too. And then Simone hit them with the last and most resolutely up to date of the women, improbably named Peaches. “My skin is brown,” she growled ferociously, “my manner is tough. I’ll kill the first mother I see. ’Cause my life has been rough.” (One has to wonder what the Dutch made of killing that “mother.”) If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger.

A lot of black women have been openly angry these days over a new movie about Simone’s life, and it hasn’t even been released. The issue is color, and what it meant to Simone to be not only categorically African-American but specifically African in her features and her very dark skin. Is it possible to separate Simone’s physical characteristics, and what they cost her in this country, from the woman she became? Can she be played by an actress with less distinctively African features, or a lighter skin tone? Should she be played by such an actress? The casting of Zoe Saldana, a movie star of Dominican descent and a light-skinned beauty along European lines, has caused these questions—rarely phrased as questions—to dog the production of “Nina,” from the moment Saldana’s casting was announced to the completed film’s début, at Cannes, in May, at a screening confined to possible distributors. No reviewers have seen it. The film’s director, Cynthia Mort, has been stalwart in her defense of Saldana’s rightness for the role, citing not only the obvious relevance of acting skills but Simone’s inclusion of a range of colors among her own “Four Women”—which is a fair point. None of the women in Simone’s most personal and searing song escape the damage and degradation accorded to their race.

Ironically, “Four Women” was charged with being insulting to black women and was banned on a couple of radio stations in New York and Philadelphia soon after the recording was released, in 1966. The ban was lifted, however, when it produced more outrage than the song. Simone’s husband, Andrew Stroud, who was also her manager, worried about the dangers that the controversy might have for her career, although this was hardly a new problem. Simone had been singing out loud and clear about civil rights since 1963—well after the heroic stand of figures like Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr., but still at a time when many black performers felt trapped between the rules of commercial success and the increasing pressure for racial confrontation. At Motown, in the early sixties, the wildly popular performers of a stream of crossover hits became models of black achievement but had virtually no contact with the movement at all.

Simone herself had been hesitant at first. Known for her sophisticated pianism, her imperious attitude, and her velvety rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy” (which, like Billie Holiday before her, she sang without the demeaningly ungrammatical “s” on “loves”), she had arrived in New York in late 1958, establishing her reputation not in Harlem but in the clubs of hip and relatively interracial Greenwich Village. Her repertoire of jazz and folk and show tunes, often played with a classical touch, made her impossible to classify. In these early years, she performed African songs but also Hebrew songs, and wove a Bach fugue through a rapid-fire version of “Love Me or Leave Me.” She tossed off the thirties bauble “My Baby Just Cares for Me” with airy insouciance, and wrung the heart out of the lullaby “Brown Baby”—newly written by Oscar Brown, Jr., about a family’s hopes for a child born into a better racial order—erupting in a hair-raising wail on the word “freedom,” as though registering all the pain over all the years during which it was denied. For a while, “Brown Baby” was as close to a protest song as Simone got. She believed it was enough.

And then her friend Lorraine Hansberry set her straight. It speaks to Simone’s intelligence and restless force that, in her twenties, she attracted some of African-American culture’s finest minds. Both Langston Hughes and James Baldwin elected themselves mentors: Simone, appearing on the scene just as Holiday died, seemed to evoke their most exuberant hopes and most protective instincts. But Hansberry offered her a special bond. A young woman also dealing with a startling early success—Hansberry was twenty-eight when “A Raisin in the Sun” won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, in 1959—she had a strongly cultivated black pride and a pedagogical bent. “We never talked about men or clothes,” Simone wrote in her memoir, decades later. “It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk.” A milestone in Simone’s career was a solo concert at Carnegie Hall—a happy chance to show off her pianism—on April 12, 1963, which happened also to be the day that Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested with other protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, and locked up in the local jail. The discrepancy between the events was pointed out by Hansberry, who telephoned Simone after the concert, although not to offer praise.

Two months later, Simone played a benefit for the N.A.A.C.P. In early August, she sang “Brown Baby” before a crowd gathered in the football stadium of a black college outside Birmingham—the first integrated concert ever given in the area—while guards with guns and dogs prowled the field. But Hansberry only started a process that events in America quickly accelerated. Simone watched the March on Washington, later that August, on television, while she was preparing for a club date. She was still rehearsing when, on September 15th, news came of the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young African-American girls who had just got out of Bible class. Simone’s first impulsive act, she recalled, was to try to make a zip gun with tools from her garage. “I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone,” she wrote. “I didn’t yet know who, but someone I could identify as being in the way of my people.”

This urge to violence was not a wholly aberrant impulse but something that had been brewing on a national scale, however tamped down by cooler heads and political pragmatists. At the Washington march, John Lewis, then a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was forced to cut the word “revolution” from his speech and to omit the threat that, absent immediate progress, the marchers would go through the South “the way Sherman did” and “burn Jim Crow to the ground.” James Baldwin, in a televised discussion after the bombing, noted that, throughout American history, “the only time that nonviolence has been admired is when the Negroes practice it.” But the center held. Simone’s husband, a smart businessman, told her to forget the gun and put her rage into her music.

It took her an hour to write “Mississippi Goddam.” A freewheeling cri de coeur based on the place names of oppression, the song has a jaunty tune that makes an ironic contrast with words—“Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee made me lose my rest”—that arose from injustices so familiar they hardly needed to be stated: “And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddam!” Still, Simone spelled them out. She mocked stereotypical insults (“Too damn lazy!”), government promises (“Desegregation / Mass participation”), and, above all, the continuing admonition of public leaders to “Go slow,” a line that prompted her backup musicians to call out repeatedly, as punctuation, “Too slow!” It wasn’t “We Shall Overcome” or “Blowin’ in the Wind”: Simone had little feeling for the Biblically inflected uplift that defined the anthems of the era. It’s a song about a movement nearly out of patience by a woman who never had very much to begin with, and who had little hope for the American future: “Oh but this whole country is full of lies,” she sang. “You’re all gonna die and die like flies.”

She introduced the song in a set at the Village Gate a few days later. And she sang it at a very different concert at Carnegie Hall, in March, 1964—brazenly flinging “You’re all gonna die” at a mostly white audience—along with other protest songs she had taken a hand in writing, including the defiantly jazzy ditty “Old Jim Crow.” She also performed a quietly haunting song titled “Images,” about a black woman’s inability to see her own beauty (“She thinks her brown body has no glory”)—a wistful predecessor to “Four Women” that she had composed to words by the Harlem Renaissance poet Waring Cuney. At the time, Simone herself was still wearing her hair in a harshly straightened fifties-style bob—sometimes the small personal freedoms are harder to speak up for than the larger political ones—and, clearly, it wasn’t time yet for such specifically female injuries to take their place in the racial picture. “Mississippi Goddam” was the song of the moment: bold and urgent and easy to sing, it was adopted by embattled protesters in the cursed state itself just months after Simone’s concert, during what they called the Mississippi Summer Project, or Freedom Summer, and what President Johnson called “the summer of our discontent.”

There was no looking back by the time she performed the song outside Montgomery, Alabama, in March, 1965, when some three thousand marchers were making their way along the fifty-four-mile route from Selma; two weeks earlier, protesters making the same attempt had been driven back by state troopers with clubs, whips, and tear gas. The triumphant concert, on the fourth night of the march, was organized by the indefatigable Belafonte, at the request of King, and took place on a makeshift stage built atop stacks of empty coffins lent by local funeral homes, and in front of an audience that had swelled with twenty-five thousand additional people, drawn either by the cause or by a lineup of stars that ranged from Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis to Joan Baez. Simone, accompanied only by her longtime guitarist, Al Schackman, drew cheers on the interpolated line “Selma made me lose my rest.” In the course of events that night, she was introduced to King, and Schackman remembered that she stuck her hand out and warned him, “I’m not nonviolent!” It was only when King replied, gently, “Not to worry, sister,” that she calmed down.

Simone’s explosiveness was well known. In concert, she was quick to call out anyone she noticed talking, to stop and glare or hurl a few insults or even leave the stage. Yet her performances, richly improvised, were also confidingly intimate—she needed the connection with her audience—and often riveting. Even in her best years, Simone never put many records on the charts, but people flocked to her shows. In 1966, the critic for the Philadelphia Tribune, an African-American newspaper, explained that to hear Simone sing “is to be brought into abrasive contact with the black heart and to feel the power and beauty which for centuries have beat there.” She was proclaimed the voice of the movement not by Martin Luther King but by Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, whose Black Power philosophy answered to her own experience and inclinations. As the sixties progressed, the feelings she displayed—pain, lacerating anger, the desire to burn down whole cities in revenge—made her seem at times emotionally disturbed and at other times simply the most honest black woman in America.

Continue reading at The New Yorker

Photo Credit: Oscar C. Williams /

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