The title of Liz Garbus’ 2015 documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?”, is particularly notable for its brilliance in capturing the complex and captivating story of one of the most renowned performers in the world, Nina Simone. Fans of Simone can relate to the title’s resonance, as they seek to understand the intricate web of emotions, regrets, and conflicting desires that underpinned her life and musical legacy. The title captures the essence of Simone’s struggle to balance her longing to become a classical pianist with her passion for civil rights activism, her enigmatic and guarded persona, her complicated relationship with her own music, her reluctance to leave her abusive marriage, and many other unanswered questions.
To comprehend Nina Simone’s life and art, one must delve into the peculiarity of her background. She was originally known as Eunice Kathleen Waymon and was born in America during the 20th century, a time characterized by intense racial segregation and violence against Black people. Simone’s dedication to her musical talent as a child made her isolate herself from her peers, as she rehearsed the piano for seven hours every day. Her first experience with racism was at 12 when she had to perform in a library while her parents stood at the back because they were Black. Simone also mentioned in the documentary ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ that the rejection of a scholarship to attend the prestigious Philadelphia Curtis Institute of Music due to racism was a devastating event that shattered her dreams of becoming the world’s top Black female classical pianist. “I never really got over the jolt of racism at the time,” Simone stated.
Simone’s future became uncertain and unplanned after being rejected by Curtis Institute, and fear was an inevitable part of her life. According to a 1988 interview with The Wire, Simone stumbled into show business by chance and didn’t start as a blues or love song singer. As a classical pianist, she only sang about love because she didn’t have it at the time. Simone revealed that she never received enough love, and the only times she received it were in Africa and at the beginning of her career
To truly comprehend Nina Simone, one must delve into her unique background. She was originally named Eunice Kathleen Waymon and born in a 20th century America that was brutal and segregated. Growing up, Simone’s musical talent was evident, and she was said to have practiced the piano for seven hours every day, which caused her to become isolated from her peers. At 12 years old, she experienced racism when she was asked to perform in a library, and her parents were forced to stand at the back of the room because they were black. When she was denied a scholarship to attend the prestigious Philadelphia Curtis Institute of Music due to racism, it significantly dashed her hopes of becoming the world’s foremost black female classical pianist.
After the rejection by Curtis, Simone’s future was uncertain and unplanned, and she stumbled into show business by chance. Her music genre would change frequently, reflecting her untamable emotional vortex. Her music ranged from classical to jazz, with an infusion of pop, blues, folk, ballads, and gospel. In the early 60s, her music became more politically charged, fueled by her anger at the 1963 racially motivated bombing of a Black Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and she wrote the song “Mississippi Goddam” to denounce white supremacy. However, she slightly regretted these actions later in life, feeling that she was not actively involved in politics or that people did not think of her as a woman who sang love songs.
Nina Simone was a woman who held unconventional and bold views about femininity and womanhood that were considered daring for her time. In a 1999 interview with Tim Sebastian on Hard Talk, she expressed her refusal to conform to any form of female oppression. When asked if men were intimidated by her, she responded that they were and that she did not try to put them at ease. She refused to cook and clean for anyone and insisted that men accept her as both a star and a woman. These beliefs could be attributed to the difficulties she encountered in her first marriage to Andy Stroud and her overall tumultuous experiences with love.
Nina Simone struggled with many personal demons throughout her life. Her journey began with a risky move into the unknown after being let down by her dreams. She found it difficult to reconcile her love for her people with her love for herself, which led to many regrets. She was also forced to hide much of her genius from the world, as the world was not ready for her kind of talent. The complexities of show business also took a toll on her, often leaving her smiling only when it was profitable. Additionally, the strange connection between pain and art may have contributed to her decision to remain in an abusive marriage longer than necessary. Lisa Simone, in a 2015 documentary, described her mother as someone who had a “love affair with fire” due to her experiences with physical abuse. In one of her diary entries, Nina Simone revealed her love for physical violence in both love-making and war.
Overall, Nina Simone was not only a legendary figure but also a complex and brilliant genius. The nature of genius itself is multifaceted and can be overwhelming and daunting instead of simply captivating. Without truly experiencing the challenges Simone faced, such as rejection, unrequited love, and exhaustion, it is difficult to fully comprehend the extent of her strength and resilience. These experiences may even be enough to drive a person to madness
Nina Simone’s life was a clear cry for liberation, as demonstrated in her electrifying performance of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” at the Village Gate in New York City in 1968. Fans of Simone argue that this performance is one of the greatest displays of soulful singing ever witnessed. As the “High Priestess of Soul,” she surpassed herself with the song, dancing and sweating as she took her audience on a fleeting journey of ecstasy. Her ultimate desire was simply to be free.
Author: Okiemute C. Abraham.