The Revolutionary Legacy of Nina Simone Remains as Relevant Today as Ever

Told largely in her own words, Netflix's new documentary, <i>What Happened, Miss Simone?</i>, traces the the legendary singer's quest for freedom, from Selma to Lagos.

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Jul 8 2015, 4:00am

Nina Simone in the Netflix original documentary 'What Happened, Miss Simone?' All photos by Peter Rodis. Courtesy of Netflix

There's a memorable scene in the new documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? in which the legendary blues and jazz singer is being interviewed. The year is 1968, and we're at the end of the civil rights movement. "What's freedom to you?" asks the reporter, and Simone pauses. "I'll tell you what freedom is to me," she says finally. "No fear. I had a couple times on stage where I really felt free. And that was something else."

The black power icon Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, the sixth of eight children, to a poor family, in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933. Her father, John Divine Waymon, was a handyman, and her mother, Mary Kate Waymon, was a housemaid and Methodist minister. The family struggled, but Simone, who began playing the piano at age three in her mother's choir, caught her first break when her mother's employer saw her play. Uncharacteristically for the times, the white woman gave Simone private piano lessons herself, and eventually raised funds for the young singer to attend the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.

"What I hope people take [from the film] is the love of an artist, who is one of the greatest most influential artists of the twentieth century," said director Liz Garbus in an interview. "After they see this movie, [I hope they] want to listen to all of her music and it gives to them as much as she has given to so many people for the past fifty years."

Told largely in Simone's own words, the film is about more than music. It weaves together Simone's interviews, dairy entries, and recorded performances as it portrays Simone at her unapologetically rawest. There are tense moments during the chaotic 1970s when a militant Simone speaks truth to power that seem almost suicidal. In one scene that cuts between Simone and her friend and prominent member of the Black Panther party, Stokely Carmichael , Simone says, "Black people are never going to get their rights unless they have their own separate state. And if we have an armed revolution with a lot of blood, we will have our own separate state."

"It was intense at times because of her artistry," Simone's longtime percussionist Leopoldo Fleming told me. "Sometimes, when I was on stage, I would get emotional because of the way she expressed herself, because she was so strong and unlike any other singer."

In a time when blacks were struggling for full civic participation in America, Simone's quest to achieve some measure of the fleeting feeling of freedom she felt onstage underpins the soul-searching hour-and-a-half narrative that explores the pianist's life.

"She signified struggle," Garbus told me. "She was a person who grew up in the Jim Crow South and came up through the classical music world. But she was also someone who stood with Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and all of these folks."

After performing for years in dives, Simone appeared at Hugh Hefner's original Playboy Club in Chicago in early 1960s, where she dutifully played her version of Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy." The song was a breakout hit for Simone, climbing to number 18 on the Billboard chart. It seemed that she was destined to be one of the great black starlets of the period.

"If I had to pick a favorite song, it was 'I Loves You, Porgy,' because it was a love story, and ain't nothing like love," said Simone's longtime bassist, Lisle Atkinson.

However, the scene is only the beginning of the complexity that marked Simone's life on and off the stage.

"My mother was a revolutionary from the stage," says Simone's daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, in a later scene. "My mother was Nina Simone 24/7 and that's when it became a problem," she says in reference to the physical abuse she received from Simone on several occasions after her marriage to Arnold Stroud, a former police officer, broke down.

On the subject of Stroud, his inclusion here is ultimately distracting. As an ex-husband who tried and failed to control his wife, Stroud abused Simone, and on at least one occasion raped her. And yet viewers get confusing moments where Simone's own diary points to his inability to sexually satisfy her, as well as her willingness to provoke him to the point of physical altercation. Rape is about power, not sex, but given the way the film lays out Stroud's moments onscreen coupled with footage of their daughter talking about her parents' relationship and the diary entries, the message gets murky. And it's dubious that Simone's abuser should be given so much of an opportunity to shape a picture that seeks to tell the story of a woman who was so fiercely independent.

Simone followed up her pop-fused first album, Little Girl Blue, with the audacious record Mississippi Goddam in 1964. With her voice veering from demands for freedom to taunts of indignation, Simone sings, "You don't have to live next to me, just give me my equality," as her backup singers coo, "Go slow," in mocking response to the gradual approach President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress took toward civil rights leaders' demands. The song also served as a response to the murder of organizer Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that left four young girls dead. In the song, Simone not only skewers the America in which those in power often ignored such violence, but also the civil rights leaders who called for a nonviolent approach in wake of the innocent killing of black people. In typical Simone fashion, she performed the song before an audience of 40,000 people, including Martin Luther King Jr., right before she and other civil rights artists crossed police lines during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches for voting rights.

"I was not nonviolent," Simone declares toward the end of the film. "I thought we should get our rights by any means necessary." According to her guitarist and bandleader Al Schackman, Simone repeated this sentiment to none other than Martin Luther King Jr. Simone saw herself as an artist who reflected the turbulent times in which she found herself. She saw it as her duty to shape and mold the country along with the others of her generation in the 1960s and 1970s.

As the civil rights movement gave way to the black power movement, we see Simone continuing her protest through her music. A Raisin in the Sun author Lorraine Hansberry penned Simone's black-power anthem "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black " and poet Langston Hughes wrote "Blacklash Blues" for Simone as she begin to tour the world to speak out against American injustice. "I could sing to help my people and that became the mainstay of my life," says Simone.

"My favorite time playing with Nina was playing in front of 100,000 people in Lagos, Nigeria," Schackman told me of the 1961 African-American Cultural Exchange festival held in Lagos that featured the singer with other notable black American artists, such as Langston Hughes and Hale Woodruff. "We landed and the doors opened and the smell of the jungle came in and the mist," Schackman said. "Then we heard the drums and there were hundreds and hundreds of people who had camped to greet Nina and hear what she had to say."

It's a sad twist that this unyielding and revolutionary approach to fighting oppression and brutality is what also ultimately drove Simone broke, forced to play small clubs in Paris to support herself. And yet it's also what resonates with artists today.

"What I saw was an artist who was just real," multi-platinum recording artist Usher Raymond said to me about the film. "Though there may have been a lot of judgment that came with her choices, the way she chose to use her talent took guts. Now maybe [this film] will deliver a message that will help understand the magic of what she was and change the reality of our circumstances now."

Circumstances that have led the soulful R&B singer Jasmine Sullivan to recently cover Simone's "Baltimore" in the wake of the recent Baltimore riots against police brutality.

"She spoke to the times and I definitely think as an artist now we can do a little more, so I admire her fearlessness," said Sullivan, whose stirring rendition will be featured on an upcoming Nina Simone tribute album. "I loved the fact that she was an activist for that time and I was allowed to honor that."

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the film is the timeliness of it. In watching Simone's struggle, riff, and rhyme to support freedom and equality through her music, the conversations surrounding policing in American cities draws parallels to the questions Simone raised throughout her career. In the aftermath of the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore, who was arrested and suffered injuries to his spinal cord at the hands of six local police officers, and the suicide of 22-year-old Khalief Browder , who was held at Rikers Island in solitary confinement for three years without trial, Simone's fearless calls have a special significance today.

"'Mississippi Goddam' was a song sang by a black woman that was an incredibly bold and potentially life-threatening song at that time," said Garbus of the anthem that was at once a protest, call to action, and a challenge to voices that called for forgiveness in the wake of 1960s-era white power-fueled violence. "And we need that song today. Look at Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Florida, and South Carolina—we need her today just like we needed her then. She is a necessary voice we need right now."

What happened, Miss Simone? is streaming on Netflix and showing through Thursday, July 9, in New York City at the IFC Center. Director Liz Garbus will be present for a Q&A on Thursday, July 9, after the 7:35 PM show.

Antwaun Sargent is on Twitter.

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