“I Am Not Nonviolent”: New Nina Simone Film Captures Singer and Activist’s Uncompromising Voice

As the Black Lives Matter movement grows across the country and the the nation mourns the death of the nine worshipers killed at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, we look back at the life of one of the most important voices of the civil rights movement: the singer Nina Simone, known as the High Priestess of Soul. While Simone died in 2003, a new documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, sheds light on her music and politics. Her song “Mississippi Goddam” became an anthem of the civil rights movement. She wrote it in the wake of the assassination of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four black children. We speak to the film’s director, Liz Garbus, and Al Schackman, Nina Simone’s guitarist and music director for over 40 years.

TRANSCRIPT:

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: “Alabama’s gotten me so upset, Tennessee has made me lose my rest, and everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.” Those were the words the legendary singer Nina Simone wrote five decades ago in the wake of the assassination of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four black children. “Mississippi Goddam” would become an anthem of the civil rights movement.

NINA SIMONE: [singing] Hound dogs on my trail
Schoolchildren sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer

Don’t tell me
I’ll tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying “Go slow!”

AMY GOODMAN: Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” Well, 50 years later, Nina Simone’s message remains as relevant as ever, as the Black Lives Matter movement grows across the country and the nation mourns the deaths of the nine worshipers killed last week at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

While Nina Simone died in 2003, a new documentary sheds light on the music and politics of the singer known as the “High Priestess of Soul.” The documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, opens today in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and releases on Netflix on Friday. This is the film’s trailer.

NINA SIMONE: I think the only way to tell who I am these days is to sing a song. We’ll start from the beginning.

LISA SIMONE KELLY: My mother was one of the greatest entertainers of all time. When she was performing, she was an anomaly, she was brilliant, she was loved.

COMPÈRE: The one and only Nina Simone!

GEORGE WEIN: Her voice was totally different from anybody else. Let me listen to it again. How is she doing this?

STANLEY CROUCH: She was one of those musicians, you hear them once; the next time you hear them, you say, “Oh, that’s that same one I heard last week.”

LISA SIMONE KELLY: People think that when she went out on stage, she became Nina Simone. My mother was Nina Simone 24/7. And that’s where it became a problem. Everything fell apart. She was a revolutionary. She found a purpose for the stage.

NINA SIMONE: I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?

AL SCHACKMAN: There was something eating at her.

LISA SIMONE KELLY: When the show ended, she was alone, full of anger and rage.

NINA SIMONE: I have to live with Nina, and that is so difficult.

AL SCHACKMAN: Nina was fighting demons. She could get violent.

NINA SIMONE: Hey, girl. Sit down.

AL SCHACKMAN: The change in her would be dramatic—mm, like a switch.

NINA SIMONE: Sit down!

LISA SIMONE KELLY: As fragile as she was strong, as vulnerable as she was dynamic. Most people are afraid to be as honest as she lived.

NINA SIMONE: I had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free.

COMPÈRE: The High Priestess of Soul.

UNIDENTIFIED: Miss Nina Simone.

COMPÈRE: Nina Simone!

ANNOUNCER: Nina Simone.

LISA SIMONE KELLY: She was a genius. She was brilliant. But she paid a huge price.

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for the new documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?

To talk more about Nina Simone’s life and work, we’re joined now by two guests. From Martha’s Vineyard Community Television in Massachusetts, Al Schackman joins us. He was Nina Simone’s guitarist and music director for over 40 years. And here in our New York studio, we’re joined by filmmaker Liz Garbus. Her 1998 film, The Farm: Angola, USA, was nominated for an Academy Award. Her new film, What Happened, Miss Simone?, opens today in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, releases on Netflix on Friday.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! This is an epic film that comes at such a critical time. First, start with the title, Liz, What Happened, Miss Simone?

LIZ GARBUS: What Happened, Miss Simone? derives from an article that Maya Angelou wrote in 1970 for Redbook. Nina had been—you know, was the patron saint of the rebellion, and she was a leader in the movement. And then, after the murders of so many of her colleagues and compatriots and fellow travelers, she had had enough. She had had enough with America, and she left. And the article, and the question in the article, “What happened, Miss Simone?” was asking, you know, where is she? Where are these voices? What happened to Nina? And so the film kind of uses that as a frame to unravel, you know, how we understand Nina Simone’s career, her art, her commitments.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And why did you decide to make this film? And can you talk especially about some of the archival footage that you were able to put together in it?

LIZ GARBUS: You know, in my view, Nina Simone is one—you know, was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, right up there with Miles Davis, James Brown, Bob Dylan, and, possibly because of race and gender, was not—and the combination of the two, in her case, you know, had not been regarded that way, and especially here in the U.S., where I think she had been overlooked and forgotten and certainly misunderstood, as her song intimates. And so, we were able to, with the permission of the estate, get—do a really, really deep dive into Nina Simone, not just the concerts and the performances, which of course make up the heart of the film, but also private tapes of Nina talking about her life, you know, 30, 40 hours of that, diaries, letters, notes, and interviews with some of her most intimate friends and family members.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us a thumbnail biography of Nina Simone, if you can. I mean, her life spans years, both in the public eye and outside of the public eye.

LIZ GARBUS: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: But she wasn’t born Nina Simone.

LIZ GARBUS: No, she was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, the daughter of two very religious parents. Her mother was a minister in a church. And from a very young age, people noticed in church that Nina was incredibly talented at the piano. When she was about six years old, some white folks in that community thought, “Oh, maybe we have a prodigy on our hands here,” and they took up a collection to get Nina—Eunice Waymon, get her a classical music education. So, from that age, she started crossing the railroad tracks to the home of Ms. Massinovitch, who, again—who gave her—you know, schooled her in Bach and the classics. Nina was extraordinarily talented. They raised money, enough to get her to Juilliard here in New York. And her dream was to become the first black classical pianist in Carnegie Hall. After one year at Juilliard, she applied to the Curtis Institute, and then the money—and she did not get in. And the money ran out.

This was when Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone. She started—her parents, her family, had moved up north to be around her. She started playing in bars and clubs, and singing what her family considered to be the devil’s music. So she changed her name to Nina Simone so it would go underneath her mother’s radar. One night in a bar, they said to her, “You know, if you want to make some money, you better sing.” And that’s when Nina Simone began singing. So this was never the intended path for her career. Throughout her life—you know, she lived to age 70—she lamented that she didn’t get to explore that classical path to its fullest. But, of course, she also found great joy and triumph in her involvement with the civil rights movement, which of course then also led to her deepest disappointments.

AMY GOODMAN: And before that, why she didn’t pursue the classical music, she went to Juilliard, but then tried to get into Curtis music—school of music in Philadelphia.

LIZ GARBUS: That’s right. And she did not gain acceptance. And that was one of the finest schools, and it would be paid for. And once that was taken away from her, she couldn’t continue that education.

AMY GOODMAN: And why was it taken away?

LIZ GARBUS: Her view was that she—it was because of race. And Curtis Institute denied that. But, of course, there were very, very few black students who had ever been accepted to Curtis. You know, it was—it was the ’50s, you know, so, certainly, we imagine that it played a role.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to get to the civil rights years, and also, in addition to speaking to Liz Garbus, the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, we want to speak with Al Schackman, who was Nina Simone’s guitarist and music director for over 40 years. Stay with us.

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