Home > Uncategorized > February 7 – The Activist Artist

February 7 – The Activist Artist

In last Friday’s entry entitled Strange Fruit, I called out 2 famous Black female singers: Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Interestingly, neither of them rose to fame using their birth names, choosing instead to use stage names. One of the two, the focus of today’s entry, was actually born Eunice Kathleen Waymon.

To tell you a little more about Ms. Waymon, I’ve invited friend and colleague Nell Ryder to be my first-ever guest author. Nell was an African American studies minor at Northwestern University, and she is a fellow champion in the fight against Willful Ignorance. Given her knowledge and extreme passion about the subject of Black History, she jumped at the opportunity to write a piece about the woman who made her own way in a male-dominated industry, whose music embodied the concept of art-as-activism, and who was, quite simply, “the raddest singer ever.”

So… who WAS the raddest singer ever?…

Nina Simone was born in 1933 in North Carolina. Demonstrating prodigious musical talent from an early age, Simone was sent to Juilliard in New York City to study piano, backed financially by her hometown in North Carolina. Once in New York, Simone nurtured her talent to success – as a pianist, a singer, a songwriter, and a performer. Though widely received in the mainstream, the complexity and superiority of Simone’s music must not be underestimated: drawing on a solid foundation in classical training, her songs reflect a wide range of musical stylings – from jazz, to pop, to classical, to European sounds, to gospel, to folk.

Simone would become a figure recognized as much for her political activism as for her songs. In her musical canon, Simone tackled relevant and often controversial topics; from the fight for equality to white violence against African Americans to racist and essentializing portrayals of black women in American society, Simone bravely and honestly spoke her mind. Yet the combination of her superlative intellect, thoughtfulness, and courage did not always garner her support — from both white and black communities. When Simone spoke out against the peaceful ideology central to Civil Rights, instead advocating violent and forceful revolution, many of her most vocal detractors were, in fact, members of the non-violent Civil Rights movement.

Perhaps the most notable example of art-as-activism lies in Simone’s 1964 song “Mississippi Goddam.” Boycotted in several Southern states immediately following its release, “Mississippi Goddam” sheds light on the white Southern activity during the Civil Rights movement –from the Mississippi murder of Medgar Evers to the bombing of a Sunday school in Alabama. The song eschews the peaceful calls for equality espoused by other prominent Civil Rights leaders, and it instead illustrates the unspeakable violence endemic to the South during this tumultuous period.

Starting in 1970, Simone spent the latter years of her life outside the United States. Although subsequently released records were not met with the commercial success that marked her career during the 1960s, most of her later ventures received critical acclaim. Finally settling in Provence in the mid-1990s, Simone died there in 2003 after a long battle with breast cancer. Almost eight years after her death, Simone’s legacy is fraught with complexity. As an activist, her words and political beliefs alienated many of her contemporaries; yet the critically important impact that her music had on the Civil Rights movement is undeniable.

thanks for reading,

nell and francis

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