August 3, 2021

Nina Simone, de Bach to Malcolm X

Nina Simone during a concert

Indomitable, misunderstood and rebellious, Nina Simone survived ardent loves, abject husbands, erratic behavior, exiles, slights … This dramatic and disorderly life, narrated by the singer in Victim of my spell (Kultrum), did not prevent him from indulging in activism and composing some of the anthems of the highly unequal struggle to defend the civil rights of the black African-American population. Songs that were going to shake the hitherto peaceful foundations of the accommodating North American record industry and provoke a real revolution.

“Closer to happiness” than she could be “without a husband to love.” This is how Eunice Weymon, better known as Nina Simone (Tryon, United States, 1933-Carry-le-Rouet, France, 2003) portrayed herself at the end of her memoirs, Victim of my spell (Kultrum). He had started them thirty years before, and to write them he began to look back over his entire life without finding anything to regret, despite “countless mistakes, not a few bad days, and, most exhilarating of all, years of joy – hard, but also endearing – in which I fought for the rights of my brothers and sisters everywhere […], years in which pleasure and pain were mixed. “The result is an exciting volume launched on November 28 by a newborn publisher, Kultrum, and which traces the portrait of a tormented personality, who dreamed of the first black classical music concert performer and became a jazz star. A brave and temperamental woman who fought for the civil rights of blacks and had to flee the United States to avoid being imprisoned for not paying her taxes. That she desperately sought the approval of her family and the love of a man and that she found only scoundrels and abusers of all kinds, and that she triumphed almost despite herself and lived with full hands, even in despair.

Eunice was the sixth of eight children born to Mary Kate and John Weymon, both descendants of generations of slaves and highly religious (the mother was a devoted preacher who had the little girl accompany her to the piano every Sunday from church to church). The family experienced moments of certain prosperity, but The Crack of 29 and a serious illness of the father ruined them to the point that they needed a handful of prosperous white neighbors to pay for the girl’s musical studies, endowed with an undeniable natural talent for the piano. This is how he discovered Bach, and was quick to adore him: “Technically he is perfect. When you play Bach’s music you have to understand that he is a mathematician and that all the notes add something, they make sense. They always bring you to a climax, like waves each larger and larger that accumulate and form a great storm, “he will write.

After studying for a year at the famous Juilliard Academy in New York, thanks to a fund financed by the wealthiest citizens of the town, she tried to obtain a scholarship at another world-renowned center, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, but was rejected “because it was not the right thing to do. Really good […] It was as if all the promises made to me by God, my family, and my community had been broken. And as if I had been lied to all my life [….] It was the end of everything. ”Later he would understand that the reason was not his lack of talent but his color.

Determined not to give up, she continued to prepare to apply for the Curtis Scholarship the following year, and began tutoring to finance her studies. From there to playing in nightclubs, which paid much better than a handful of young people with more pretensions than talent, there was only one step, and young Eunice took it, after changing her name so that her mother, who despised “worldly music“He did not discover that his daughter worked nights in slums crowded with irredentist drunks. The next step, then, was obligatory, to change her name, and also to do it with glamour.

Nina Simone with her daughter Lisa Celeste and her husband Andrew Stroud in the 1960s

Nina Simone’s pseudonym was born from two loves: “Niña” was what Chico, a Hispanic boyfriend called her, and Simone, the name of one of his favorite actresses, Simone Signoret. Nina Simone debuted at Atlantic City’s Midtown Bar and Grill for $ 90 a week and all the milk she could drink (I was not trying alcohol then). The first night he only played the piano, combining pieces of classical music with popular songs and some jazz. The second made her debut as a singer so as not to be fired, and the old bar began to fill up with students who listened to her in almost religious silence.

His fame began to spread, he recorded an album without reading the fine print (with which he lost millions of dollars) and suffered countless pirated recordings because no night he performed the same songs or in the same way. Thus began a turbulent career, full of ups and downs, unhappy loves, unique concerts and a lot of pain. “He hated that life: the stingy scoundrels, the disrespectful audiences, the way people were so easily satisfied with the most simplistic and stupid melodies,” he wrote in his memoirs.

After a very brief first marriage to Don, a young white admirer who was more a friend of drugs than of work, Nina Simone became the Queen of the New York Village: a friend of James Baldwin, she shared the stage with Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, she saw read Allen Ginsberg in a loft, hired a newcomer named Richard Pryor as the opening act and met Lauren Bacall, Natalie Wood, Rod Steiger … And she remarried, to a very aggressive cop, Andy, who became her agent and her manager. Also in the father of her only daughter, Lisa, and in the person responsible for her financial ruin and a thousand problems with the North American treasury that almost led her to jail and exile. However, what made her flee the country was not the taxes, but the racial struggle.

Aware that the fight for the defense of civil rights had its roots not in the mobilizations of Martin Luther King or in the boycott of the Montgomery buses, but in times of slavery, he first reviewed the past “and the reasons why that I should be proud of my own culture. ” He studied the great black nations (Benin, Egypt, Nigeria, Liberia), and he learned that “many of these civilizations had developed while Europe was still in darkness”. He read everything he could, he signified himself in numerous public statements and was radicalized until he concluded that peace at any price was impossible, that the black population had the right and the duty to defend itself even violently, and that “the idea of ​​a black nation separate made sense. “

Nina Simone junto to Malcolm X

The murder of Malcolm X confirmed his worst fears. That, together with the scams that throughout her career suffered from all the record companies with which she worked or that pirated her, and her problems with the treasury pushed her to leave, with his daughter, the United States in September 1970 for Barbados. There, at the end of the decade, one of the most turbulent, scandalous and happy times of his life began., when she fell desperately in love with Prime Minister Errol Barrow, who installed her in a mansion and fulfilled all her whims except one: he never left his family, nor did he divorce to marry her. Burdened by the pressures of the diva, fourteen months after meeting her, Barrow put an end to the idyll, hid his belongings in a storage room and asked her to leave the place.

After a brief stay in Europe giving concerts, he went through another troubled stage in Liberia, and after a new sentimental setback he settled in Switzerland so that his daughter Lisa could continue her studies. Holland, England and France witnessed their economic problems, of her struggles with the American Treasury, of concerts in which, for the first time in her career, she was taken over by an astonishing insecurity and a terrible mood.

The abyss was so close that it reacted with a new radical turn: from the serenity, sure that it was happier without sentimental or economic parasites nearby, it managed to reconcile with the treasury “which meant that I could live, travel and perform in the United States without risking re-prosecution. He also traveled to Barbados and Liberia and unearthed “the various ghosts” that had haunted him lovers like Barrow, Imojah (an impossible love), “sad memories, but memories after all, not ghosts that distracted me from real life. “.

Wounded but never defeated, and happy at last, it was then that she decided to recall and collect her memories in Victim of my spell. He published it in 1992 and began to fully enjoy his reconquered world fame, thanks, for example, to the fact that the new generations of Internet users had turned songs like “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” into real anthems. In addition, he reconciled with his daughter (witness of his many excesses and with whom he had always had a “complicated and difficult” relationship) and performed with her at the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin in 1999 singing some duets. Since then she has not lacked recognition and accolades: even the Curtis Institute, which had rejected her as a student in her youth, awarded her an honorary doctorate “in recognition of her contribution to the art of music.”

He died in his sleep in Carry-le-Rouet, a spa town near Marseille in 2003. Fifteen years later, his music, his songs, his unmistakable voice, continue to sound.

Read here some selected pages of the memoirs of Nina Simone