Singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone would have been 80 this week. The rightly titled High-Priestess of Soul cut an unimpeachable string of 40 records in her career. While musically, her songs fall pretty squarely in line with the vocal jazz sounds of the late 50's, her songs have not aged into elegance and irrelevance the way many of her contemporaries have. Listening to the landmark 1964 live album Nina Simone in Concert, her performance isn't merely electric. 50 years later, it's still downright dangerous.
While the so-called “protest song” has a long and storied history, what Nina Simone accomplished on Nina Simone in Concert wasn't merely singing about social change. It wasn't merely speaking truth to power. Her performances on the record mark the beginning—or at least the beginning of being successful at—songwriting as direct action to achieve social change.
Singing at Carnegie Hall to a largely white audience, Nina introduces the song “Mississippi Goddam” to uncomfortable laughter from the crowd. As the show-tune inspired track picks up, it becomes clear that her introduction “I mean every word of it” is painfully true. When she later points out “Thought I was kidding...” there's tellingly no laughter from the crowd anymore. Inspired by the murder of Edgar Meyers, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the song's upbeat sound is in direct contrast with the raw unbridled rage of the lyrics.
Nina Simone points out and tears apart the argument to “go slow” about achieving Civil Rights. It's a frustratingly familiar refrain repeated to every social movement in history (see also: current arguments against Gay Marriage and Immigration Reform which more or less all boil down to “go slow.”) But here, full of righteous fury, Nina Simone uses her privileged position as a successful and popular performer to point out to the very people advocating she “go slow” that patience is not a luxury she has.
Vocal jazz and soul are mediums that tends to reward beauty and technical precision. The unpredictable ugliness of anger, rage, and frustration is not something often conveyed through piano ballads. At a time when Civil Rights leaders advocated non-violence, and filled their speeches with high-minded religiosity, Nina Simone boldly proclaimed her own loss of faith and laid bare her violent anger. “Oh but this whole country is full of lies / you're all gonna die and die like flies.” There aren't many singers who can get away with wishing for the death of their audience after accusing them of being complicit in the singer's oppression. There are even fewer jazz singers. Specifically there's just the one, really.
It's reductive to discuss Nina Simone's legacy in musical terms. Her true legacy is in that fearlessness of publicly expressing rage directly to the target of one's rage. Her true legacy is the artist-as-activist using their medium as direct action. Her legacy is Marvin Gaye singing “What's Going On.” Her legacy is Lauryn Hill indicting the rap scene in “Ready or Not.” Her legacy is Lupe Fiasco's infamous anti-Obama rant. Her legacy is punk rock. 50 years later the songs on the essential Nina Simone in Concert (which also features the tracks “Old Jim Crow” and “Go Limp”) are shocking for her courage to express ugliness. The songs are rare for being not just songs about social change, or songs about wanting social change, they're radical for being songs that actually helped bring about social change.
- Words by Nathan Leigh