NINA SIMONE’S INFLUENCE ON THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
Manymusicians have played a part in the shaping of the American society.This is often by addressing issues that touch on the society andculture. During the civil rights movement, many Jazz musicians cameup and were recognized as influential figures that directed thegeneral fight for freedom of the minority. The Jazz style became apopular genre of music for young African-Americans during thesetimes, as they used it to identify and position themselves in thesociety. Similarly, the genre, through a number of famous musicianswho thrived in it, played a pivotal role in the development andsustainability of the movement from the beginning of the 20thcentury, up to the time racial discrimination was significantlyreduced around the 80s. This paper looks at one of the genre’s mostrecognized and influential figures, Nina Simone, and her contributionto the civil rights movement through jazz music.
Nina Simone was born in 1933 in North Carolina.1She began practicing music at a tender age, after her parents andmusic teacher took note of her exemplary talent in singing. Despitethe fact that she was brought up in a poor background, she never lostfocus on her interest in school, and specifically, music. Shortlyafter joining school, her music teacher helped to raise her schoolfees, and went on supporting her until she cleared her high schooleducation. Her exemplary talent facilitated her winning of ascholarship to join the famous Juilliard School of Music in New YorkCity.2During her time there, she trained as a classical music pianist,alongside singing in a small group. However, soon after this, shecould not continue raising her fees, and she left the school. It wasat this point that she concentrated ion Jazz music. She took up thestage name “Nina Simone”. She began recording her music in the1950s with the Bethlehem labels, and this was the beginning of aglittering career that lasted for decades.3
Perhapsthe biggest contributor to Nina’ inspiration to jazz music was herpoor background. She was one of the many African American childrenthat had to struggle through their education, given that her parentscould not afford to pay her school fees. The problem was facilitatedby social and economic sidelining of the Black population in America,as the government did not adequately address the needs of thisdemographic with the seriousness it deserved. As such, Simoneabandoned the classical music act, and took the Jazz style, which theBlacks identified themselves more in. In a number of ways, authorshave described her music as one that defied standard definitions.4While she identified the role that the genre played in the lives ofthe Blacks, she did not want to be identified as a Jazz singer. Thisis the reason she hated being nicknamed “high priestess of soul”,as she though it further blinded her within the black communitystereotyping, which was detrimental to her effort to liberate theBlacks from the same.
Soonafter establishing her name and image in Jazz music, the populationbegan recognizing her as one of the major voices of the civil rightsmovement. According to Kernodle, she was one of the most outspokencritics of segregation and racism in America.5In America, during this period, the African Americans were not giventhe same opportunities as their white counterparts. A black child’schances of making it in life, for instance, becoming a successfulmusician, were limited by the color of his or her skin. For instance,Simone gave an example of the Black children from the south, who werenot given the same opportunity to study classical music as the whitechildren. Despite the level of their talent, they were not able tolearn in a formal setting, hence limiting their capabilities.
Anumber of her recordings were used to give voice to the struggle forBlacks’ liberation from racial segregation during the civil rightsmovement. Both in style and in content, she was able to use jazzmusic to regain the lost dignity of the Black American community. Itis noted that her professional composition and performance of ‘Iput a spell on you’ was one of the songs that established her rolein the liberation of the Black people.6She recorded the song in a professional way, which matched thoserecorded by the whites. By doing this, she became a living prove tothe racists that the black people, including the women, were able toraise to the same levels as those of the white people. She gave therecord the grace and dignity that placed Jazz music on a platform tocompete with other famous genres in America, such as rock n roll.Afterward, she recorded ‘four women’, which was one of the mostwidely used tools for voicing the plight of the Blacks. This recordspoke about the condition of the African American women in general.The position and role of the Black women in the civil rights movementwas well established, and this record was one of the tools thatcemented the position of the African American women in the Americansociety. Of all her recordings, one stood out to be the mostassociated with the civil rights movement in America. This was‘Mississippi Goddamn’, which according to historians, was arecord substantially demonstrated the role of Nina Simone’ jazzmusic in the civil rights movement.
Mississippi Goddamn was released when the civil rightsmovement had reached the peak of its national campaign against racialsegregation in the American society. Despite the fact that Simone hasestablished a cordial relationship with some members of the Whitecommunity, Murray and Neal assert that the release of this songcomplicated the relationship, and cemented her commitment to thecivil rights movement.7The first performance of this song was in the Carnegie Hall in NewYork, where it attracted hundreds of hardcore civil rights movementfollowers, as well as the attention of the American media. Sheintroduced the song as a show-time piece, which had no othercomparison to other Blacks movement records yet. In many performancesof the song, the feelings of the young black Americans were oftenstirred, and they found more reasons to continue fighting for theliberation of their community. Based on this fact, Brooks concludesthat Mississippi Goddamn was regarded as the anthem for thecivil rights organizers in Mississippi.8
Theopening line of the song is “Alabama’s gotten me so upset,Tennessee’s made me lose my rest”. By stating this, she wasaffirming the failures of the society, which had hurt her dignity andrespect as a Black America. During this time, the two states had beensome of the worst hit by open and oppressive racial segregation. TheBlacks and Whites were essentially separated in almost everything,from the homes they lived in, schools they went up to the jobs theydid. Additionally, both states turned out to be two of the hottestcenter stages of the civil rights movement crusades, and where thesong was most popular in this campaign. Subsequent lyrics of the songaddress the situation in Mississippi, where the blacks were tortured,arrested and even murdered. Even years after her death, the songremained as one of the pieces of Jazz music that was instrumental inthe civil rights movement in America.
Influenceon American society
Throughher music, Nina Simone supported the Civil rights movement, bothintellectually and materially. For instance, she played a number ofbenefit shows, whose revenue collection was directed towards thecivil rights movement campaign. For instance, in 1963, she performeda concert in Birmingham, alongside other jazz groups that hadorganized the event.9Over 9000 dollars that were collected from this and other similarconcerts were directed into the civil rights kitty. Simone was ableto balance her relationship with the whites and the blacks. Forinstance, mostly the whites attended most of her concerts, outsidethe civil rights movement campaigns. Regardless, she majesticallyperformed her songs, including those that the whites did notspecifically like, because of their connection to the Blackcommunity’s fight against racism.
Simone’ssongs and performances were highly admired among the black community,especially in the way that she presented them. In the civil rightsmovement struggle, the leaders had asked the people to usenon-violent means to pass their message across. Simone was recognizedas one of the artists that used non-violence as a tactic from afeminine perspective. This was by including rich content in hermusic, and communicating the ideas categorically. However, in herperformance of ‘Go Limp’, she threatened vengeance on the blackpeople’s oppressors. This was one of the few songs that motivatedthe black people to resort to a more rigid physical struggle againsttheir white oppressors. Regardless, many Black people recognized herstyle and music, and hailed her as one of the artistic leaders of themovement during the time.
Throughout her musical career, Nina Simone provided the blacks with acultural and nationalist perspective of the civil rights movement.Additionally, she challenged, and encouraged as well, young Blackwomen to join in the fight against racism and racial segregation. Shealso proved to be one of the uniquely talented and visionarypersonalities in the civil rights movement, by fusing jazz music withthe fight of the Black people. Bond says that her radical feministBlack identity was key to championing for the agenda of the civilrights movement.10Through her performances, she provided the movement with the muchneeded financial and logistical support that it needed. Her case isan affirmation that jazz music was imperative to the shaping of theblack people’s cultural and social identity in the Americansociety. Simone’s music provided the blacks with racial solidarityand justification, which they greatly needed to oversee theirstruggle.
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Feldstein, Ruth. “I Don’tTrust You Anymore: Nina Simone, Culture and Black Activism in the1960s,” TheJournal of American History 91(2005): 1349-1379.
Kernodle, Tammy L. "“I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to beFree”: Nina Simone and the Redefining of the Freedom Song of the1960s." Journal of the Society for American Music 2, no.03, 2008.
Murray,Forman and Mark Anthony Neal. That`sthe joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader(Psychology Press, 2004).
Simone, Nina and Stephen Cleary, I Put a Spell on You: TheAutobiography of Nina Simone New York: Da Capo Press: 2003.
11. Nina Simone and Stephen Cleary, I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone (New York,: Da Capo Press: 2003), 2.
44. Ruth Feldstein, “I Don’t Trust You Anymore: Nina Simone, Culture and Black Activism in the 1960s,” The Journal of American History 91 (2005): 1351.
55. Tammy Kernodle L. "“I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free”: Nina Simone and the Redefining of the Freedom Song of the 1960s." Journal of the Society for American Music 2, no. 03 (2008): 295.
66. Nina Simone and Stephen Cleary, I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone (New York,: Da Capo Press: 2003), 45.
77. Murray, Forman and Mark Anthony Neal. That`s the joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (Psychology Press, 2004), 26.
88. Daphne Brooks A. "Nina Simone`s triple play." Callaloo 34, no. 1 (2011): 176.
1010. Julian Bond. Sing for freedom: The story of the civil rights movement through its songs. Edited by Guy Carawan, and Candie Carawan. (NewSouth Books, 2008), 47.