Nina Simone was one of the indelible performers in American music and an influential voice of the civil rights movement – and yet it’s probably safe to say that a lot of people don’t know her name.
“Nina Simone is probably one of the most important artistic figures that has not received due respect or credit for their contribution to American music,” said Joseph Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center at UNC. “There was and is no one else like her.”
The Stone Center’s new exhibit “Nina Simone...What More Can I Say?” may not remedy this oversight entirely, but it is so expertly conceived and searingly memorable that it will make great strides in doing so.
The exhibit opens Thursday night with a reception at 7 p.m. It will remain up until Nov. 30.
Jordan, who curated the exhibit, first heard the music of Simone in the 1960s during the civil rights movement. “You could go to a party in those days and they would play political music to dance to,” Jordan said. “That was the moment in history when you had the harmonic convergence of what art was reflecting and what people were saying in the streets.”
Simone was born in Tryon, N.C., in 1933. She began her singing career in the 1950s, debuted her first album, “Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club” (aka “Little Girl Blue”) in 1958.
Originally there was nothing political in the wide breadth of her musical repertoire. But Nina’s friendship with the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote “A Raisin in the Sun,” changed this.
“Nina was trying to figure out why she should be involved in the civil rights movement,” Jordan said. “Lorraine told her, ‘You are black in America. You are already involved. It is up to you to discover how and why.’”
Despite knowing the potential risks for her career, Simone got involved. In 1964, she recorded “Mississippi Goddam,” for which she wrote the music and lyrics. The sheet music is in the exhibit. The song was banned in the South but became a civil rights anthem.
The exhibit touches upon Simone’s friendship with James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, who along with Hansberry helped Simone decide she had a responsibility to sing out for equality.
One section of the exhibit, “In my Own Words by My Own Hand,” includes correspondence to her brother, Carroll Waymon (Simone’s birth name was Eunice Waymon).
Many of her letters are like a frantic dance. “She has song lyrics she is thinking about,” Jordan said. “She talks about the troubles she is having with the IRS and if she can make it. These are intimate notes that reveal that as strong as she was on stage, she was a very delicate person trying to figure out why she couldn’t settle down and have that very sedate life she saw other people have.”
Waymon, who provided material for the exhibit, lives in California but will make the trip and attend the opening reception. “Nina was an incredible musician, but most importantly I want people to think about the fact that she was committed to the principle of nonviolence,” Waymon said.
Waymon said Simone got her incredible talent from her father, who played seven instruments – including the musical saw – and had an outstanding tenor voice.
Only proper Christian music was played in the Waymon home, yet within its walls lived a secret. When Simone was four, her dad fell ill and she nursed him for two years. “He taught her to play all the crazy blues he knew, but told her she couldn’t tell her mother,” Waymon said. “She didn’t sing; she just played the instruments.”
Simone died in 2003. Waymon said he and his sister are still one in spirit, and he hopes young people will follow her example and stand up for what they believe.
“Her protest songs are evidence of that, and young people should express their talents, whatever their God- given talent is.”
While Simone’s protest songs are among the most prominent parts of her career, she touched on many styles of music. “her music catalogue is so dense that five people can like Nina Simone and all five like a different Simone,” said Howard Craft, artist in residence at The Stone Center.
Craft was commissioned to write a play about Simone for the exhibit. “She was a real human being,” Craft said. “She was not perfect in that she had issues, but she was committed to her art. Her art came first in her life.”
Faculty member Kathryn Williams directs the play. Performances are scheduled for Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. and 16 at 2 p.m.
Triangle actress Yolanda Raybun plays Simone. “I have always been intrigued by who this person was and how powerful she was and the journey she takes you on in the minutes of a song. I think this play has a beautiful message that is so important, that we say something with our being, our art. If we are doing anything else, we are wasting time.”
Nina Simone is 29th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and as Crys Armbrust, founder and executive director of The Eunice Waymon-Nina Simone Memorial Project, says, “Her music is as vital today as when she first produced it.”
Armbrust founded the project in part to help support young people in pursuit of their educational goals. The first Nina Simone Scholarship recipient, Megan Elizabeth Miller, recently graduated from Oxford University and is teaching at UNC-Asheville. For other aspects of the project, go to ninasimoneproject.org
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