From the beginning of her life, Nina Simone proved to be an extraordinary force. Born on Feb. 21, 1933, in Tryon, N.C., as Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Simone’s parents were minsters while her father also worked as a handyman. Though she was born during the period of the Great Depression from 1929 through 1939, Simone’s parents afforded as many opportunities as possible to their gifted child.
Simone was a prodigy of the piano, learning by ear as a young child, eventually gaining classical training. Playing piano during services led by her mother, Simone caught the attention of a local teacher named Muriel Mazzanovich, according to the estate of Nina Simone. In addition to instructing Simone in the art of playing the piano, during which time the young girl studied the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert, Mazzanovich also helped organize the Eunice Waymon Fund. The charity was supported by many in the Tryon community to help Simone excel as a pianist and academic, aiding the young honors student’s education.
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has worked toward the protection of Simone’s childhood home, the artist’s activism began early. As Simone prepared to perform at the Tryon Library in 1943 at 11 years old, due to Jim Crow laws, her parents were forced to give up their seats in the front row to accommodate white patrons. The young Simone would not begin her performance until her parents took their places in the front row to enjoy their child’s recital.
As an honors student at boarding institution the Allen High School for Girls in Asheville, N.C., Simone graduated as valedictorian of her class. Following completion of her studies, Simone studied at New York City’s Julliard School, as she followed her dreams of a career as a classical pianist. During her time studying in New York, Simone applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but was denied admission, a decision she believed was racially motivated because she was a Black woman.
During her time as a music teacher, Simone auditioned as a singer for Atlantic City, N.J.’s Midtown Bar & Grill. Resonating with patrons at the club, Simone’s sound attracted hordes of fans from different areas along the East Coast. It was during this time when Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone, using the Spanish word for little girl—nina—and the first name of actor Simone Signoret, in order to hide from her parents the direction her career had taken into the nightclub scene.
In her book “I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone,” which she wrote with Stephen Cleary and published in 1991, Simone wrote “When I used to get blue years ago James Baldwin would say the same thing to me each time, ‘This is the world you have made for yourself Nina, now you have to live in it.’ Jimmy was always a man to see things as they really are and his gaze would never flinch no matter how unpleasant the things he saw were.”
It was during this time, Simone embarked upon the path that led her to emerge as the High Priestess of Soul, catching the attention of recording executives in the late 1950s. During this period, Simone’s repertoire included songs such as “I Loves You, Porgy,” “Little Girl Blue,” “Cotton Eyed Joe,” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”
In 1961, according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Simone married Detective Andrew Stroud, who was a member of the New York City Police Department. Stroud became Simone’s manager and the couple eventually welcomed a daughter named Lisa in 1962.
Blending music and activism, Simone spoke through smooth, powerful melodies that would raise the awareness of her audience in a way that made the listener stand up, take note and listen to a message of reckoning for the country’s violent history of racism. Touched by events within the United States Civil Rights Movement, particularly the Sept. 15, 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., which left four girls dead, and the assassination of activist Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963, at his home in Jackson, Miss., Simone’s work became more connected with activism. In “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone demands “All I want is equality; For my sister, my brother, my people, and me; Yes, you lied to me all these years; You told me to wash and clean my ears…Oh but this whole country is full of lies…Everybody knows about Mississippi; Everybody knows about Alabama; Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.”
Songs such as “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” “Four Women,” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” reflected the challenges faced by Black people in the U.S. There was also a version of the haunting “Strange Fruit,” with Simone painting a horrific lyrical picture of Black life in the South with the words “Southern trees, bearing strange fruit, blood on the leaves, and blood at the roots, Black bodies, swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hangin', from the poplar trees…” Though originally recorded by Billie Holiday, the song was given a raw renewal by Simone, whose rendition forces the listener to face the ugly stain of lynching innocent Black bodies in the United States.
After divorcing Stroud in the 1970s, Simone spent more than two decades living in different regions of the world including Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, Switzerland, and The Netherlands. Simone passed away on April 21, 2003 at her home in the French region of Carry-le-Rout, Bouches-du-Rhone. Today, the Eunice Waymon—Nina Simone Memorial Project exists as a charitable organization to aid children’s education through scholarships, just as Simone had been supported by her community decades ago. A posthumously released edition of Simone’s autobiography included an addendum written by music critic David Marsh, which was titled “I Know How It Feels to Be Free: Nina Simone 1933-2003.”
In the April 23, 2003, homage, Marsh wrote “[A lot] of her obituaries call her a jazz singer. They also refer to her as singing pop, cabaret, rhythm and blues, soul, blues, classical art song, and gospel. She had a different idea. ‘If I had to be called something, it should have been a folk singer because there was more folk and blues than jazz in my playing.’ Maybe that’s true of her piano playing. But her singing, not her playing, defined her. Mainly it defined her as Nina Simone, sui generis. But if you need a label, try this one: Freedom Singer.”
Through her innate musical gift, Simone’s natural inclination for the piano laid the path for her impactful career in making music through her voice, songwriting, and fearlessness, which was also a form of social-justice activism. A profound influence on today’s musicians, music lovers, and activists, Simone’s legacy continues to lead, not only artists in the music industry, but it also fortifies the current movements toward racial justice and equity.
In her autobiography, when looking back on her own life, Simone expressed contentment and gratitude for the experiences that shaped her life and the people these occurrences led her to meet. It has been said that prior to her death in 2003, Simone requested that her ashes be scattered across Africa.
“I’ve crisscrossed the world many times and every big city holds its own treasure-box of memories. I’ve had lovers from many different countries and I’ve fallen in love with whole countries, and, in the case of Africa, with a whole continent,” Simone wrote in her autobiography. “Through my life I made a world for myself just as Jimmy said I would, and the best thing of all is that I’m still happy to live in it, after all these years.”