The Civil Rights Movement of 2015 Could Use a Voice Like Nina Simone


“They’re shooting us down, one by one,” Nina Simone told the thoroughly middle class crowd matter-of-factly at Long Island’s Westbury Music Fair, three days after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. She and her band had just debuted “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead),” a worthy tribute to Simone’s great friend, written by her bass player Gene Taylor before MLK was even buried. Taylor’s response was in line with Simone’s radical and reactionary nature at the time, as captured in full swing that night on the live album ‘Nuff Said.

Simone wrote one of her most indelible anthems,”Mississippi Goddam,” after four black girls were killed in a 1963 Birmingham church bombing. It would be among her setlist two years later when she played in Selma, following the second attempt to march to Montgomery. Shortly thereafter, she’d find herself neighbors with Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz in Mount Vernon, N.Y. — an addition to a social circle that had included “young, gifted and black” writers like Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes.

In this regard, Nina Simone’s existence served as testimony for her music. Rarely was it an easy route to take — a truth that sits at the heart of What Happened, Miss Simone?, which premieres on Netflix this Friday and in select theaters today.

Through an impressive collection of archival performance clips and interview audio, director Liz Garbus crafts a moving and substantial documentary that shows how Simone lived her truth to painful extents, through domestic abuse from husband/manager Andy Stroud, rejection of fame via self-imposed isolation in Liberia, and eventual treatment for bipolar disorder following immense fits of rage. The ending, however, is redemptive. Simone’s life did not end in tragedy, as she threatened in her diaries during the height of her career. Her one-of-a-kind voice remains as vital as ever.

In watching the film, one cannot help but feel like there were real stakes involved with Simone’s political views. “Participation in activism in the ’60s rendered chaos in any individual’s lives,” Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s eldest daughter, says of Simone in the doc. “People sacrificed sanity, well-being, life. Nina Simone was a free spirit in an era that didn’t really appreciate a woman’s genius.”

Nina Simone, later in life, in “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (Photo courtesy of Gerrit de Bruin/Netflix)

Towards the end of What Happened, Miss Simone? sits an interview conducted with Nina in the 1980s in which she states that she doesn’t regret being part of the Civil Rights Movement, which she claims is nonexistent at the time. However, “some of the songs I sang have hurt my career. All the controversial songs, the industry decided to punish me for and they put a boycott on my records. It’s hard for me to incorporate those songs anymore because they are not relevant to the times.”

Scenes like these are the hardest to watch, but without them there would have been no need to make What Happened, Miss Simone?. With the race divide our country is facing right now, it’s become even more clear that Simone’s songs remains relevant to the times.

Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike, Lauryn Hill, Common and John Legend, J. Cole, and just this week in light of the Charleston shootings, Kanye West have served as musical voices in the chapter of the Civil Rights story that’s playing out, violently, right now. Their efforts are not to be diminished, but there’s nothing to rival the sense of activism that permeated Simone’s work and life. As her daughter Lisa notes in the film, political tragedy sustained Simone — a quality that defines ‘Nuff Said, where her rage and sadness over MLK translates into one of her most dynamic live performances ever recorded. And this being Nina Simone, that’s no easy feat.

We need more radical black art to emerge right now — overtly political music that forces the white mainstream to see the world through someone else’s eyes, risk of audience alienation be damned. Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly or Cole’s “Be Free” feel like just the beginning in comparison to the sacrifices Simone made, as evidenced with great detail in What Happened, Miss Simone?.