Nina Simone’s impact on the world sustains even when it was a far fetch from what she originally envisioned for herself.
By Hess Love
“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, oh lawd, don’t let me be misunderstood.”
Nina Simone is good company, or so I’ve heard it said by someone who could relate to feeling perpetually misunderstood. I asked them how they felt when hearing her. I was searching for an entry, a point of intimacy. What story could I tell about Miss Simone and me that would be true, that would be raw, that would be relatable?
There are hundreds of pieces on Nina Simone, so when Sherronda asked me to write something about her, for her, I felt somewhat intimidated. There are writers who have Miss Simone on the soundtrack of their lives and are writing about her from a profound and deeply watered place. I read up on her, I watched “What Happened, Miss Simone?” enough times until conspiracy theories started to form in my head, I listened to podcasts about her life, about her impact, trying to bring to light what exactly my relationship to Nina Simone is, and how could I write about her from an intimate space.
After listening to her song “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and revisiting the documentary about her life and career, it dawned on me to talk about her intentions—and her impact. How she just wanted to do good, and how she didn’t always do good. I wonder how she lived with that—continuously having good intentions but making an impact that went far beyond those intentions, in both negative and positive ways. Her music is the score for anyone whose life went array from their original intent; Nina Simone and her gospel of good intentions is relatable for anyone that has the heart to listen.
“Everybody is half dead, everybody avoids everybody. All over the place in most situations, most all the time. I know – I’m one of those everybodys.”
It seems as though Nina Simone battled with intent versus impact all of her life, and in a profound way, especially as someone with a mental illness that went undiagnosed until well into adulthood. In the years before her widespread fame, her intent was to earn enough money to go to school so she could pursue a career as a concert pianist. When she took a job at a local club, the owner told her to sing or else she’d lose the position. Born Eunice Waymon, she adopted Nina Simone as her stage name and used the anonymity to shield her mother from the idea of her daughter singing music not suitable for church. She had no intention of being a vocalist, she had no intention of singing and performing in clubs. She originally wanted to be Eunice Waymon, the concert pianist but ended up becoming Nina Simone, the singer who would move the world. And this would lead her towards becoming one of the loudest and bravest voices of a movement for Black liberation.
Miss Simone used good intentions as a survival strategy. Sometimes it rewarded her handsomely, sometimes the impact took her to places far from her original vision and sources of joy. In order to survive show business, she began to use her platform as a singer to bring light to issues facing Black people in the U.S.
“I’ve always thought that I was shaking people up, but now I want to go at it more. And I want to go at it more deliberately, and I want to go at it coldly. I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I’ve performed, I just want them to be to pieces.”
Being able to bring people to their rhetorical knees seemed to be a catharsis for her. On that stage, no one could tell her what to sing about, what to talk about, she was determined to be a voice, a melody that forever haunts the landscape of American music and doesn’t let it forget its sins or the blood of enslavement and colonization that it was birthed from.
When an interviewer asked her what freedom meant to her, she famously said, “I’ve had a couple of times on stage where I really felt free, and that’s something else. That’s really something else. I tell you what freedom is to me: no fear! I mean really, no fear.” Being on stage was the only place where she could feel free. Perhaps because it was simultaneously a place of speculation, but also a place of safety from her husband’s abuse and a place where she could massage her battles with undiagnosed manic depression and bipolar disorder into art. As a performer, she was fearless and free from (or in position over) the things that weighed her down: system racism, mental illness, domestic abuse. Her intent was to inspire people to wake up to what was going on, to go out and change the world to make a better and more just place for Black people to live.
The impact this had was far beyond what she could have imagined. She became closer to notable people in the Civil Rights Movement and her politics became much more radicalized than they were originally—she once told Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., boldly, “I’m not non-violent.” Some people refused to play her music on airways and radio stations would send records of “Mississippi Goddam” back to her destroyed. Some people told her she was being manic and alienating the very same music industry that she would need to support her. While many on the outside who were fighting for the mid-century movement for Black lives saw her as a visionary and a leader, the impact in the vision that they had of her is so starkly different from what people in the music industry and even her abusive husband had of her during that time.
What Miss Simone taught me is that, sometimes, there is no easy way to hold the weight of our impact. Perhaps this means that the people most (dis)empowered by it are our very selves. Especially as Black creatives who are intentional about being political, and not just political by default of existence. She taught me that it’s okay to wonder about what simplicity for Black creatives would look like in this world and to think about whether anti-Blackness ever grants us that simplicity at all. Even when we are good at things, even when we intend to do good things… sometimes this world doesn’t allow us to fulfill our intent simply; sometimes the impact is greater than what we can contain and be held accountable for. Even when our impact masquerades as immeasurable blessings from the outside, it can be stressful, or even isolating on the inside.
Nina Simone’s impact on the world sustains even when it was a far fetch from what she originally envisioned for herself. She was a revolutionary, fearless, someone whose gospel could inspire people to baptize themselves into roadways of the Civil Rights Movement, yet also someone who experienced incredible loneliness simultaneously with it all.
I can’t with complete certainty say what her intentions were. How much did she originally think she could mark the world being a concert pianist? Or did she want to mark the world at all? Would the first Black woman concert pianist to perform at Carnegie Hall—as she had dreamed of becoming— have written, produced, and performed “Mississippi Goddam?” She would’ve been a history maker just by being a form of representation alone, but would she ever have become Miss Nina Simone? Maybe her intent was to always be as close to the music as possible and let her fingers pang against piano keys be her voice. Now her voice is on cultural radio waves that span generations and her voice will go on forever.