Even those who didn’t live through Nina Simone‘s heyday can recognize her songs, or at least her voice. Born Eunice Waymon, the passionate performer and activist died in 2003, and today her recordings still loom larger than the rest of her story.
In the new documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, filmmaker Liz Garbus goes looking for the details that have slipped through the cracks. She recently discussed the film with NPR special correspondent Michele Norris; hear their conversation at the audio link and read an edited version below.
Michele Norris: Who was the Nina Simone that you knew when you started this project?
Liz Garbus: I knew the music — I didn’t know the woman. So, here’s a young girl who grows up in the church; her mother is both a housekeeper and a minister. People quickly realize that this is a young girl with extraordinary musical talent. The town comes together, black and white — and this is the Jim Crow South, this is North Carolina — and raises a fund for her to study classical music. She studies with a Russian immigrant named Ms. Massinovitch, and young Nina, whose name is actually Eunice Waymon, falls in love with Bach. I didn’t know that Nina was a classically trained pianist who had gone to Juilliard. When you start to understand that part of her upbringing and her training, you start to be able to deconstruct, as you listen, the way that she infuses a jazz standard with classical counterpoint and blues and soul. Her musical talent and training is evident in every bar.
She talked about herself sort of as existing in between the white and the black keys of the piano, and that’s how she grew up: this child-prodigy treasure, living on the other side of the tracks, and of course facing racism when she performed. When she was 12 years old, at a classical recital, her parents were asked to sit in the back of the room. Nina refused to play if they were in the back of the room. She was always living in opposition — sometimes dangerous opposition.
Why did she change her name?
So Nina’s at Juilliard, and the money the townsfolk had collected for her has run out. She applies to Curtis [Institute of Music], where, if she was accepted, tuition would be paid for by the institute itself. She’s rejected from Curtis, and she ends up starting to play in the bars of Atlantic City in order to support herself. Her whole family had moved north to be around her while she was studying, and she was ashamed that she was playing in bars. She had come up in a very religious family, playing church music and classical music, and here she was in the bars and nightclubs where people were drinking, and she was providing entertainment. She changed her name to avoid being on her mother’s radar.
In your film, some of the hardest scenes to watch are when Simone’s adult daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, looks back on her childhood.
I think Lisa had spent a long time trying to set the record straight about her mom, and that’s a very hard task, because the record about her mom isn’t straight. Her mom had a life with many rough edges. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have nice things to say about Nina Simone. She occupies that space that people call “a difficult woman.” That’s a term laden with a lot of sexism, as many male performers could get away with some of the stuff that Nina would pull.
Nina truly did have difficulty in her life. She did, I think, suffer from an undiagnosed mental illness for most of her 20s and 30s. So this was Lisa’s mother: a woman who was in an abusive marriage, who could be abusive herself, who was in turmoil about her career, though totally dedicated to it. Setting that record straight for Lisa is no easy task, and Lisa feels now that her mother’s story has been told and that she doesn’t have to correct the record.
Nina Simone was known as an activist. Do people understand fully the price she paid for that?
I don’t think it’s understood how different Nina was from some of the entertainers of the time. Of course, there are many great contemporaries of Nina — Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin — who were able to participate in the movement and nurture the commercial side of their career, and Nina really wasn’t able to do that.
In 1963, after the Birmingham church bombing, that’s when Nina first identifies herself becoming involved with the movement. That’s when she sat down and in 20 minutes wrote one of the most important songs of the Civil Rights Movement, “Mississippi Goddam,” where she let her anger and rage and sadness pour out of her. As her career progressed, she wrote some of the greatest anthems of the Civil Rights Movement: “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Backlash Blues.” She surrounded herself with a community of intellectuals and radicals like Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Miriam Makeba. She was radicalized.
There’s an interview with Nina in the early 1990s by Ebony magazine, and they say to her, “Do you regret having been involved with the Civil Rights Movement?” — because she was saying that the industry punished her for her involvement. And she says, well, she’d probably do the whole thing over again, but that she does regret it because her music has no relevance anymore. And I think we can see today that she was wrong there. Her music is so relevant.