“Give me my equality,” sang the genius Nina Simone in 1963, looking racist America straight in the eye. Singer, songwriter, pianist, and activist, Simone’s work was radical and revolutionary.
Musically, Simone was brilliantly innovative, drawing from her classical piano training, her experiences working in jazz clubs, as well as blues, gospel, soul, and folk, combining elements of these genres in groundbreaking ways. And lyrically, she wrote and arranged some of the most vital indictments against injustice in music history.
Her most influential protest song of all, “Mississippi Goddamn,” was written in response to both the murder of activist Medgar Evers in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi home on June 12, 1963, and the September 15, 1963, bombing at the African American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which murdered four young girls.
The song was first released on a 1964 live album, Nina Simone in Concert, and also issued as its own single, which was eventually banned in states throughout the south.
Simone was skeptical of “protest songs” of the era. “How can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune?” Simone asked in her autobiography, I Put A Spell on You. “That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate.
But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.”
Simone did not just speak truth to power, in that the previously unspoken could now be heard, but she made the truth visceral with her arrangements and her voice, full of depth and charged with struggle. You could not and can not unhear Nina Simone.
Though “protest songs” just scrape the surface of Simone’s vast body of work, which all expressed protest in various ways, her explicitly political songs are relevant as ever in 2017 and an apt entry point into her mind and world.
“In this current political climate, I really turn to her for strength, more than ever,” Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, who we recently featured in Protest Music Project, told Pitchfork for a recent Nina Simone tribute.
“She was a black woman who refused to not shine as bright as she wanted to. Her legacy was on her terms, and she left that behind for all women of color. I watch her and think, ‘Okay, I can’t let the bastards get me down.’”
Here are five songs of resistance by Nina Simone:
“You give me second class houses / and second class schools / do you think that all colored folks / are just second class fools?” she sang on this essential song from the ‘67 record, Nina Simone Sings the Blues.
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”
“I wish I could break / All the chains holding me,” she sang on this cut from the 1967 record Silk & Soul. “Wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart / Remove all the bars that keep us apart.”
“Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)”
Simone wrote this song in 1968, with her bassist Gene Taylor, after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. “I’m not nonviolent!” Simone had told Dr. King years earlier, when they met in ‘65, to which he had responded: “That’s okay, sister. You don’t have to be.”
In 1965, two years after releasing “Mississippi Goddamn”, Simone released her version of this Billie Holiday classic, an urgent response to black lynchings in the South.
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black”
Simone wrote this song as a tribute to her close friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author of the play A Raisin in the Sun. He had died in 1965 at age 34. It was included on the album Black Gold in 1970. “In the whole world you know, there are billion boys and girls,” she sangs. “Who are young, gifted and black, and that’s a fact!”