Arts: Don't let me be misunderstood

In the Sixties, Nina Simone's music radically espoused black civil rights. But by the turn of the decade she had rejected politics. Why?
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The Independent Culture
As the news of Martin Luther King's murder in Memphis rapidly traversed America on 4 April 1968, the irrepressible fury and frustration of black Americans erupted into rioting in more than 100 cities. Thatnight, James Brown's performance at the Boston Garden was televised to tempt rioters back into their homes. On 7 April, the National Day of Mourning, Nina Simone performed on Long Island and in a soft, low voice, she confided in her audience: "I hope we can give you something, whatever it is that you need tonight." During this concert she performed "Why? The King of Love Is Dead", and commented: "We can't afford any more losses, they're killing us one by one." In the following song, "Mississippi Goddam", chuckling, she quipped, "I ain't about to be non-violent honey!".

That night, Simone had anticipated the next stage in the ongoing black American struggle for equal rights. In retrospect, she admitted that, by 1966: "I was through with turning the other cheek, it was time for some Old Testament justice." In 1968, she sensed: "The thing that died along with Martin in Memphis was non-violence, we all knew that."

The late-1960s was a period when Martin Luther King's pacificist stance was challenged by the more militant politics of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense - among others - who vowed to protect themselves from racism, as Malcolm X controversially stated, "by any means necessary". However, the line between self-defence and outright revenge would become increasingly indistinct.

H Rap Brown, a temporary member of the Black Panthers who infamously remarked, "violence is as American as cherry pie", called Simone "the singer of the black revolution", while a young Gil Scott-Heron said she was "black before it was fashionable to be black". Such praise resulted from her explicitly tackling racial issues in her songs in the early- and mid-1960s, when many other black musicians were understandably nervous of doing so. But her devotion to the civil rights movement in the 1960s was the result of a sequence of distressing mental jolts she incurred from her youth up to the outset of the 1960s.

Her childhood was not nearly as harrowing as Malcolm X's or Ike Turner's, both of whom lost parents at the hands of racists. She was raised in Tyron, a small town in North Carolina, in which she recalled "relations between the black and white communities were always cordial", and some white citizens of the town also contributed financially to her musical education. But it was at a recital in front of her sponsors that she witnessed the prejudice simmering behind the town's benign facade. Her proud parents were sitting in the front row, but an anonymous white family ordered them to move. The 11-year-old Simone innocently yelled out that she would not perform until her parents were returned to their original seats. Some white members of the audience openly ridiculed her.

This experience left her feeling "as if I had been flayed", but it had its advantages: "The skin grew back again a little more tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black." About seven years later, in her quest to become the first black classical pianist, she endured another jarring racial incident.

The prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia rejected her application for a scholarship, but she was adamant that "white people who knew said that the reason I was turned down was because I was black... I knew prejudice existed, but I never thought it could have such a direct effect on my future".

By the end of the 1950s, combining jazz and blues with classical inflections, she lived in New York and had befriended members of the black intelligentsia such as James Baldwin and Langston Hughes.

But she credits Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote the play, Raisin in the Sun, with initiating her deeper political education: "Through her, I started thinking about myself as a black person in a country run by white people and a woman in a world run by men." In 1962, she was also introduced to and inspired by Stokely Carmichael, who later coined the phrase "Black Power", and she was now making political comments on stage herself, but not in song. She describes the brutal premeditated murder of Medgar Evers, a secretary for the NAACP, in June 1963, as "the match that lit the fuse". But it was the bombing of a church in Alabama three months later, which killed four black girls and was the subject of Spike Lee's recent documentary, that finally provoked her into dedicating herself unflinchingly to "the struggle for black justice, freedom and equality".

On hearing the tragic news, she admitted: "I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone." But she decided to channel her vitriol into the song "Mississippi Goddam", which she composed that very day, with inflammatory lyrics such as: "Oh, this whole country's full of lies, You're all going to die and die like flies, I don't trust you any more." The song was the first to unearth the sense of impatient indignation infiltrating the civil rights movement.

In the following few years, she recorded many more songs with uncompromising political statements like "Old Jim Crow"; "Four Women"; "Backlash Blues"; "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free" and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black". And she flung herself into supporting civil rights marches and performed many benefit concerts, some within the ugly racial atmosphere of Mississippi and Alabama.

She also attended Malcolm X's rallies. His assassination in 1965 only aggravated the rising sense of disillusionment affecting black Americans, which plunged to their nadir in the wake of Martin Luther King's murder. Many black Americans now depended on more aggressive factions such as the Black Panthers and the radically altered SNCC, led by Stokely Carmichael.

It was during these years that she disclosed, "news came through every day of friends being arrested, beaten and intimidated", and the FBI was also monitoring her.

By the turn of the decade, her heroic impetus had stalled: "Every black political organisation of importance had been infiltrated by the FBI, police terrorised our communities. The plain truth was we were in retreat."

Her bitterness exploded during a concert in Newark in March 1970. In front of a totally black audience, she savaged the failings of black and white politicians and, later, noted: "That was the beginning of my withdrawal from political performance." She soon began a long period of self-imposed exile in Barbados, Liberia and, finally, Europe.

But her music continued to inspire. In 1970, on their debut album, The Last Poets declared: "I am the wish that makes Nina Simone wish she knew how it felt to be free." And in the same year, students in Mississippi played her music before incinerating a Confederate flag. George Jackson, a field marshall in the Black Panthers, was murdered by a guard in San Quentin prison in August 1971, and at his funeral, Simone's "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free" was played. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a member of the Freedom Singers and Sweet Honey in the Rock, confirms the integral part Simone's music played in the civil rights movement: "Nina Simone helped people survive. Nina Simone's sound captured the warrior energy that was present in the people, the fighting people."

Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" is on the compilation, `Stand Up and Be Counted; Soul, Funk and Jazz from a Revolutionary Era', just released by Harmless Recordings