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 : The moment you and your mother “escape” the U.S. to live in Liberia is a key moment in the documentary.
LISA SIMONE: At that time, my mother was really disillusioned by America, she considered America to be “United Snakes of America”, the Civil Rights movement was dead. When we went to Liberia, my mother divorced my father at that time and there were a lot of big changes taking place in the country and in our lives. She wasn’t happy, she decided to go to Africa to be happy, and she was able to find that there. That was a major shift in our lives.
After Martin Luther King’s death, was it the end of something?
It was the end of something but the beginning of others. For my mother, specifically, as she says in the film “they are killing us one by one, we are dying one by one”.
Was she scared of being shot, as a radical voice of Black Power, like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X were?
No, she wasn’t scared of being shot, but I was scared. I was screaming, “Why aren’t you scared? You need to be scared, I don’t want to lose you like that!” (laughs).
Nina Simone didn’t fear anything?
She was scared of something; she was scared of something…
Sickness… Sickness is what killed her. When my mother got breast cancer, and I came to visit her in Southern France, where she ended her life, I was the only one that could reach her. I knew when they told me that she had cancer that I needed to get to her right away. Because I was perhaps the only person that knew where her mind was. By the time I finished visiting her, I said, “Please, I need you to stay, to not give up, to use your courage and your spirit to want to be here. If not for yourself, do it for me.” And before I left she said “I will do it for you”, and she lived another six years…
Living in Liberia wasn’t the best of time for you as her daughter.
I was twelve. The best way I can summarize for you is that I made the mistake of growing up. It’s easier to love your child when they are babies, when you can put their diaper on, and they don’t speak. As those needs change, and they can put on their own pants and they can write, then it becomes more mental, and it becomes more your spirit in terms of what they need, then your children begin to rebel, to ask questions, to have their own minds…
How did you mother react to you “rebelling”?
As I got older I began to express myself more, my mother saw me as a challenge, as opposed to her child just growing up. Her way of responding could be painful; she would try to dominate me. “We are going à droite (right), we are going à gauche (left)…because I said so! I know best and you don’t know anything.” It could be really difficult especially when it was just the two of us. I was still a child.
What happened upon her death?
I had to grow up, in a way that was never required of me, until my mom died.
Is this documentary about leaving her a legacy?
I’ve been very protective of my mother. When she was dying and could no longer speak, I told her not to worry, I have your back, and I will make sure you are remembered properly. I think I have fulfilled that promise with this film. But it took ten years for my husband and I to find the proper team, the proper platform. It was not something that we just decided to do, and next month it will happen. This has been a process (laughs), a long process. So, the more I talk to people about my mother, and the things I have experienced, the more I realize that the public really has no idea of what the real truth is.
What was the most important thing you wanted the public to be aware of?
That my mother was a classical musician. She was classically trained and this is where her heart lies. This was her dream, and it never stopped being her dream.
The rejection she received meant that she became the singer the whole world knows now.
There you are. There are our plans, and there are divine plans, and they often flow in two different directions. Our hearts might be looking à gauche, and actually the reason why our soul is here is for us to go à droite. If my mother had become a classical musician, I doubt she would have made the impact that she has left us with now.
Where is the Nina Simone spirit in the today’s generation of artists?
I’ve been asking the same question for a very long time. There is one singer who talks about my mother all the time, and that’s Alicia Keys. She does a different kind of music, but she has always held my mother up to the light as an inspiration for her, musically. Perhaps this movie will inspire a lot of the personalities that we hear on the radio and see on television to open up their hearts and use their status to support something that truly needs to be change.
It seems these big artists are more focusing on the entertainment than using their voice for political or social matters.
You know, my mother was nominated for 15 Grammy Awards, she never received one, because of their political positions. I think people have to examine what they want: maybe these stars want the awards, the money, the fun… and if they decide to speak out and create waves and trouble, then big companies are not going to support you. They are making a choice, and maybe those choices will change now.
Is there one particular song from your mother that fits well with the current state of the world?
Maybe “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” I was with my mother when she wrote it. I was eleven.
How is it to witness the creation of a Nina Simone song?
I remember her on the piano, and that it didn’t take very long and that my mother wanted to write a song that would inspire black people to feel good about who they are. She looked at me and said, “You need to know who you are, and where you come from”.