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20 People Who Changed Black Music: Famed Pianist Nina Simone, the High Priestess of Soul

My original plan was to be the first black concert pianist - not a singer - and it never occurred to me that I'd be playing to audiences that were talking and drinking and carrying on when I played the piano. So I felt that if they didn't want to listen, they could go the hell home." – NINA SIMONE Famed pianist Nina Simone was a tough-talking, complex and often misunderstood singer, composer and storyteller who used an eclectic blend of music to speak out about racism and social justice during the nation's most tumultuous era. Simone left the United States in the late 1960s, saying she was disgusted with racism toward black folks. She called desegregation in America a joke and acquired a preference for the cosmopolitan environment of France, the sea spray of Barbados and the dirt roads of Africa.

"I left because I didn't feel that black people were going to get their due," Simone once told a writer. and I still don't," Simone once told a writer. Of living in Liberia, West Africa, she said, "I was at home. I took off my shoes and walked in the dirt streets, smelled all the smells ... They didn't even want me to sing over there, they just wanted me to have a good time! I felt thoroughly at home there."

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on Feb. 21, 1933, Simone recorded her first album, "Little Girl Blue" (which was also known as "Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club") in the late 1950's. After the success of her rendition of the George Gershwin classic, "I Loves You Porgy," which became a national rhythm & blues hit in the summer of 1959 - selling over one million copies - Simone became a star, performing at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and at jazz festivals, with a repertoire ranging from gospel music to African music, from blues to Duke Ellington songs, from classical music to folk songs of diverse origin.

Yanick Rice Lamb, editorial director of Heart & Soul magazine and a journalism professor at Howard University, said Simone’s influence on music is far-reaching years after her death. "The title of one of Nina Simone's albums sums up her talent vocally and on piano perfectly: 'Forever Young, Gifted and Black.' What a voice!," Lamb told

"She was truly beyond category and blended many genres into a rich stew, whether in French or English," Lamb said. "Her timeless music is infused with passion on topics ranging from relationships to - most significantly - injustice, which caused her recordings to be banned in some states during the civil rights movement."

"I doubt that we'll ever hear another voice like Simone's. It's interesting that her work has been sampled by artists like Kanye West, Mary J Blige and Talib Kweli." she added. "Still, I wonder if younger generations know much about her, which is too bad. Like Mos Def said on 'Rock N Roll' from his 'Black on Both Sides' CD, 'You may dig on the Rolling Stones, but they could never ever rock like Nina Simone.'"

Simone’s website says although Simone was called the "High Priestess of Soul" by her fans and was regarded by them as an almost religious figure, she was often misunderstood. A gifted pianist, protest singer, jazz vocalist, arranger and composer, Simone was an artist whose art was difficult to define - a unique mix of jazz, pop and classical.

"Jazz is a white term to define black people," Simone once said. "My music is black classical music." "Nina Simone could sing with a voice that knew pain so intimately, it hurt to hear her sometimes. In a voice as raspy and ancient as the generations of whom she sang, her repertoire ranged from 18-century slave songs to 1970s folk," Janus Adams wrote in a 2004 story published by Black Issues Book Review. "Offstage, Nina was not a comfortable person; she was unsettled and unsettling. A girl chided for her looks, the demons haunting all blacks in those days of arrogant, narcissistic, easy racism haunted Nina still. As a woman, with style and a certain air, she chiseled an extraordinary look and outlook for herself."

"Heaped with the ability and response-ability to sing despite and because of the enormity of it all, she railed at the affront," wrote Adams. "Kin to the millions forced into silence and solitude, Nina had been gifted with two obedient, inventive hands, a voice and a stage. With these she rallied tales of the many, 'Four Women' in particular:" My skin is black

My arms are long

My hair is woolly

My back is strong

Strong enough to take the pain

Inflicted again and again ...

My skin is yellow ...

My skin is tan ...

My skin is brown ...

"Nina Simone was perhaps the first African-American goddess of music," Keith Murphy, host and producer of Urban Journal, the XM Satellite radio show, and president of Milwaukee based Conceptz Communications, told "She had an air of sensuality," Murphy said, "the perfect blend of sensuality, style and African roots. She was in a class of her own."

Simone, according to published reports, performed her first piano recital at her hometown library in Tryon, North Carolina in 1943 when she as 10 years old. That day, in addition to getting her first taste of applause and audience approval, a young Simone also had her first encounter with both racism and resistance: Her parents were removed from the first row of her recital to accommodate white people - and she refused to play a note until they were moved back. This incident is said to have been the catalyst for her commitment to the fight for equality and civil rights for blacks.

"Coming of musical age in the late 1950s, Nina outpaced eccentric. You had to be a little crazy to sing the songs she chose," Adams wrote in Black Issues. "And hers became the musical voice of the Civil Rights Movement. Who else would write, 'To Be Young, Gifted, and Black' and elevate it as anthem? Who else would liberate us with her rollicking rendition of Billy Taylor's 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free?' Who, but a 'crazy woman' would dare pen and perform 'Mississippi Goddam' just when we needed it most?" Alabama's got me so upset

Tennessee made me lose my rest

And everybody knows about Mississippi

Goddamn! "This," Adams wrote, "when sheriffs and their deputies regularly clubbed demonstrators desegregating lunch counters, hosed prayerful children, set dogs upon grandmothers, and prided themselves at hauling a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to jail by the scruff of his neck."

Indeed, Simone wrote the fiery, furious "Mississippi Goddam" after the racially-motivated bombing in 1963 of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four young black girls were killed. It is among her most famous works, revered for both its musicianship and captivating lyrics.

Years later, still stung by America's racism, Simone bolted the country in 1969 and traveled the world. At various times, she lived in Liberia, Barbados, Switzerland, France, Trinidad, the Netherlands, Belgium and England.

In 1978, Simone was arrested, and soon released, for withholding taxes in 1971-73 in protest at her government's undeclared war in Vietnam. In 1982, the LP "Fodder on My Wings" was recorded for a Swiss label. In 1985, she recorded "Nina's Back" and "Live and Kickin" in the U.S. Simone always had strong words about America - and racism. "The worst thing about that kind of prejudice ... is that while you feel hurt and angry and all the rest of it, it feeds you self-doubt. You start thinking, 'Perhaps I am not good enough,'" Simone once said. "Slavery has never been abolished from America's way of thinking."

An accomplished scuba diver, Simone once talked about her passion for the ocean.

"I try to swim every damn day I can," she told a writer, "and I've learned to scuba dive and snorkel. I would like a man now who is rich, and who can give me a boat -- a sailboat. I want to own it and let him pay for it. My first love is the sea and water, not music. Music is second." Simone died after a long illness at her home in the south of France on April 21, 2003. Her ashes - as she requested - were spread across several African countries.