Netflix’s latest documentary on the legendary Nina Simone “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is an interesting look at her life, including intimate details about her childhood, family, music and passion for civil rights.
Nina Simone was a beautiful free spirit, musician, singer and civil rights activist, who was born (Eunice Kathleen Waymon) in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21st, 1933. She was a child piano prodigy and sang many different genres of music including pop, jazz, folk, blues and classical music. Simone’s documentary was so captivating and interesting, as it detailed how she grew up with racism, her complicated relationship with music, and many other stories from this legendary singer who left an unforgettable impact on the music industry and world, receiving 15 Grammy nominations and the Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2000. What Happened, Miss Simone? combines unreleased audio recordings by Simone, archival footage, interviews, and excerpts from her letters and diaries to tell her story from the perspective of filmmaker Liz Garbus.
Below are 5 highlights from the documentary.
1) Nina Simone studied to become the first Black classical pianist.
Though she started playing the piano by age 3, she didn’t begin singing until later in life. She grew up in the church playing the piano at revivals conducted by her mother who was a Methodist minister. Her mother’s white boss and a white music teacher decided to give Nina piano lessons and for 5 years she studied classical piano. Her childhood was very difficult and lonely as she had to practice 7-8 hours a day. She was often isolated from everyone during this intense training. She fell in love with Bach and her music teacher felt she would be the greatest classical pianist. She was able to receive a scholarship to study in New York at Julliard. She later applied to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but was not accepted. She noted that racism was the reason she was denied admission.
2) Nina Simone’s singing career began with the changing of her name.
She worked in Atlantic City, New Jersey in a bar as her classical pianist career plans were diverted. Each evening she would wear exquisite evening gowns as she sang. She changed her name to Nina Simone so her mother would not know she was singing in bars. Her mother considered that the “devil’s music.” She did this from 12am-7pm to make money for the family, who had initially moved to Philadelphia to be close to Simone while she studied. She was still lonely and never had a social life. Singing was always “a matter of necessity” for her, not “a choice.” Her ability to play different genres of music, often with a classical twist increased her popularity and led to a formal recording career. One of Simone’s songs that brought her a lot of attention was “I Loves You, Porgy,” which broke many sales records.
3) Nina Simone lived with major depression and also suffered physical and mental abuse.
She was introduced to her second husband, Andrew Stroud, by a friend at a nightclub. She fell in love with him and he left his career as a police detective to manage her music career. They had a daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly (born Lisa Celeste Stroud), and she loved being a mother to her. When Stroud booked Carnegie Hall in 1963, Simone’s fame continued to rise even higher.
Later in the marriage, her husband became physically and mentally abusive to her. She began to resent him and disliked being on the road away from their daughter. Her husband wanted her to be more of a commercial artist and worked her constantly, but as the civil rights movement came to past, she wanted to sing more about civil rights. Nina went through a lot in her personal life. She was afraid of her husband and even talks about running away from him after one abusive attack. There were times when it was difficult to sleep and she experienced depression.
“All I did was work, work, work. I was always tired. I was always tired. I could never sleep.” Nina Simone
4) Nina Simone was active in the Civil Rights movement through song.
Simone wanted more meaning in her life besides winning awards and receiving recognition. She responded to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four Black girls with “Mississippi Goddam.” The song was a bold and controversial move for her. Djays refused to play this historical and important tune, so they sent the music back.
Simone became very involved in the civil rights movement. She sung “Mississippi Goddam,” which had become a civil rights anthem, at the Selma-Montgomery march in 1965. Her daughter said after singing that song she got so angry, she broke her voice and it was never the same. She became more and more involved in the movement.
Simone felt as an artist, it was a social responsibility to discuss the times, and the challenges that people of color were facing. In addition to connecting and collaborating with many civil rights leaders, she was best friends with poet and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (Raisin in the Sun). Inspired by Hansberry’s play, “Young, Gifted and Black,” Simone made a song out of it.
“I had spent many years pursuing excellence, because that is what classical music is all about… Now it was dedicated to freedom, and that was far more important.” Nina Simone
5) Nina Simone lived a nomadic life during her last years of life.
In the late 1960’s Simone continued to battle depression and suicidal thoughts. She left her husband and moved to Africa. Her daughter, Lisa, spent some time with her, but left after experiencing physical abuse from her mother. Simone began to live a nomadic life and stopped performing. After running out of money, she moved to Switzerland and then Paris to relaunch her career. She felt that if she had become the first Black classical pianist she would have been happy. She was later diagnosed with manic-depressive illness (bipolar disorder), and took medication, which caused strong side effects.
Toward the end of her life, she continued to tour around the world. Simone died at age 70 in 2003.
I’ve shared 5 highlights from the Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which was released this summer. Have you watched this film? What did you think? Leave a comment or tweet us @BoriquaChicks.
Check out Lauren Hill’s “Feeling Good” tribute to Nina Simone below.
Reference: Nina Simone Bio
*Rebecca of Boriqua Chicks also contributed to this post.
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