A unique voice and personality, Afro-American singer Nina Simone was a multi-faceted artist: As (mentally) disturbed as she was inspired, perplexingly mesmerizing, at times violent and often the victim of violence. Politically engaged, the soul diva left a big creative and spiritual space behind her.
The What Happened, Miss Simone? documentary is now streaming on Netflix, and helps to set the record straight about the true story of this intriguing character who succumbed to cancer in 2003. An excellent classical pianist, she was “forced” to become a dive-bar chanteuse – singing the devil’s music – in order to feed the needs of her family, after the Curtis Institute of Music of Philadelphia didn’t open its door to her. It was for her a consequence of the ordinary and official racism that was an everyday matter for black people in the USA during segregation. A “broken dream” that finally revealed the Nina Simone singer we all know: a blazing artist, a major one in America in the last century, able to sing the blues, soul and folk, and to mix all these different genres with her classical roots in an admirable way. The Red Bulletin met director of What Happened, Miss simone?, Liz Garbus, and the daughter of the pianist-singer, Lisa Simone to look back on the story of a unique lady.
THE RED BULLETIN: Why was it interesting for you to be involved in this documentary project on Nina Simone?
LIZ GARBUS : Radical Media, who was my partner on this film, called me and said: “we want to do a film about Nina Simone”. I love Nina Simone’s music, but I wasn’t sure what the story was going to be about, would it be a good story? I started researching her life through her autobiography and other articles and realized what an incredible story it was. This story hadn’t really been told before, and apart from a French documentary from the late nineties there was nothing, and especially nothing about her life since she died. I thought that it was an extraordinary story; it had psychology, politics, and great arts… A great struggle, but also a triumph, a great project.
Is this movie more about the struggle, or the triumph?
About both (laughs).
You began your career directing documentaries about American prisons, then about “prisons of the mind”… was this Simone documentary also linked to this “prisons of the mind” concept?
Yeah. I started making documentaries in prison. The prison where I made my first film (The Farm) was a former slave plantation, and now 80% of the inmates are black. I did these movies about the chess player Bobby Fischer and Marilyn Monroe. For Bobby Fischer, the chessboard was both freedom and a sort of prison. For Monroe, fame was what killed her. If you look at Nina Simone, she has all of these things. Her life is a story of racism in America, she grew up under the Jim Crow laws in North Carolina, she had dreams of becoming a classical pianist, and America wasn’t ready for that.
A dream killed when she was refused by the Curtis Institute of Music?
Exactly, black people didn’t have the right to vote at the time.
Was that the moment that “created” the Nina Simone we all know?
Her whole family had moved north, to be around her, and she had to make a living to support her family. So she started playing piano and singing in bars, this is when she became Nina Simone. She changed her name so her mother wouldn’t know that she was playing the devil’s music and stopped playing classical music. Without classical music, there was something empty in her, then the Civil Rights movements filled that for her I think.
She opened lots of doors for many people/artists, but it seems no one has dared to enter, why is that?
The music industry is more concentrated now than ever. And I think she was incredibly brave to sing what she was singing. You could have been murdered for that. Or hung on a tree. She was a rare individual. America killed the Civil Rights in the seventies, and it’s only recently, in the past year, that there has been a building of a movement again, and that movement has become energized. Perhaps today more and more artists are calling on Nina Simone as their icon, because she was an entertainer who could inspire and be radical. Now you have Lauryn Hill, John Legend, Common, Kanye West and Alicia Keys all saying Nina Simone is their hero. Maybe she is the icon we need right now.
Nina Simone is their hero, but are they singing about these things she dared to sing about?
Little by little, not like Nina of course.
They are powerful people, it’s easy for them to do anything they want, are they being held back by the industry they are in? Are they being told, “don’t get too political, don’t deal with current topics”?
That is certainly what Nina believed, that she was punished by the industry because she went to far. She couldn’t be booked on TV shows; her career took a different path. There was a walk you had to walk if you wanted to earn a lot of money, and Nina didn’t walk that walk.
What was the good side of Nina Simone?
Her music. She went through everything, and when you listen to her music wherever you are, whatever you’re feeling at that moment, she is speaking to you. It’s a very profound and personal experience. It is almost like a healing process. She is speaking about everything you might have ever felt, because she went through everything.
Bad side of Nina Simone?
She could be very difficult, violent, but when you understand her life, you understand and empathize with that.
Why was she so modern?
She was revolutionary: What she did - an African female, going up on stage and talking to people, not just entertaining them with a piano, but speaking and demanding attention, that was revolutionary. That was modern. She was brave, maybe a little crazy, but a great artist.