A complex look at the soul icon and how activism and violence shaped her sound
“Mississippi goddam”. Two words uttered, with pointed indelicacy, by Nina Simone in protest at the murder of black civil rights activist Medgar Evers, on her 1964 single of the same name.
As entertainer Dick Gregory notes in What Happened Miss Simone?, Oscar-nominated documentary maker Liz Garbus’s complex portrait of the high priestess of soul, Simone set hard truths about the racial upheavals of 1960s America to wax before R&B’s menfolk had got over their high school crushes. This was a time when Sam Cooke ruled the roost as the suavely mellifluous king of R&B, Marvin Gaye was cutting his teeth on drippy duets, and a barely teenaged Stevie Wonder still came with a ‘Little’ prefix.
Then again, what else should we expect from a woman who once marched up to Martin Luther King and declared, “I’m not non-violent”? Garbus explores the passions that drove Simone to make some of the most wild and unhinged music ever to grace the pop canon, and embrace the civil rights movement with a revolutionary zeal.
“From the beginning I felt there was something eating at her,” says guitarist Al Schackman of Simone, whose dreams of becoming a classical pianist were dealt an early blow when she was rejected by the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia – ostensibly because she didn’t make the grade, though she figured she knew the real reason. This burning sense of injustice carried over into her activism and the increasingly strident black separatism that led her into exile from America, proclaiming its society as “nothing but a cancer”.
Garbus balances this picture of public defiance with one of private turmoil. Simone’s daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud, offers pained testimony of her mother’s violent mood-swings (a bipolar sufferer, she remained undiagnosed until the 1980s), while Simone’s diary excerpts reveal suicidal urges. In one disturbing entry, she admits to a love of violence after writing about her husband’s physical abuse – and Garbus cuts away to her rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ‘I Put A Spell On You’, suggesting her inspiration for covering it.
Whatever demons she was wrestling with, it’s all there in the performances. One scene sees her at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, her face a mask of sorrow and imperious disdain as she delivers a poignant take on Janis Ian’s ‘Stars’. Another is a late performance of ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, on which she chucks the arrangement completely not to prove some lame point about her versatility, but because here was an artist who really, truly didn’t give a fuck. Most of all, Simone wanted to transcend the limitations of the self to get a glimpse of real freedom. What Happened Miss Simone? pays fine tribute to that restless, contradictory spirit.