The Fierce Courage of Nina Simone

What Happened, Miss Simone?

a Netflix documentary film directed by Liz Garbus
Nina Simone performing in the 1960s
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Nina Simone performing in the 1960s

In 1968, an interviewer for New York public television asked the singer and pianist Nina Simone what freedom meant to her. “It’s just a feeling,” she replied, seemingly flustered by the question. Then, suddenly, an answer occurred to her. “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!”

This exchange appears early in Liz Garbus’s remarkable documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, and it’s a startling moment, for if Simone, who died in 2003, conveyed anything on stage, it was fearlessness. Frustrated in her ambition to become a classical pianist, she smuggled Bach into the night club, combined his music with folk, blues, and jazz, and enforced recital hall rules: those who made any noise while she played could expect a cold stare or a tongue-lashing. Her repertoire was catholic—Gershwin, Ellington, Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill, Bob Dylan—but whatever she sang ended up sounding like a Nina Simone tune. She did not so much interpret songs as take possession of them.

Her most famous song, however, was one that she composed herself. “Mississippi Goddam” was written in 1963, the same year as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and provided a sharper expression of the mood among young civil rights activists. “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet,” Simone coyly announces, before working herself into a furious assault on white counsels of patience:

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie
Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying, “Go slow!”

The mere fact that Simone dared to say “Mississippi goddam” represented a revolution in black political oratory. As Dick Gregory recalls in Garbus’s film, “We all wanted to say it, but she said it.”

Simone’s courage was undeniable, but it was also a shield, even a mask, designed to protect her from hostile forces, real and imagined. White supremacy was not the only hellhound on her trail. She suffered from bipolar disorder, a condition that remained undiagnosed until the 1980s, when her demons had all but taken over and a Dutch fan saved her from near vagrancy. She had a weakness for tough men and hustlers: “A love affair with fire,” as her daughter Lisa Simone told Garbus. (Lisa Simone is an executive producer of the documentary.)

Simone was also deeply tormented about her desires for women. “I have to live with Nina, and that is very difficult,” she confessed in an interview. Just how difficult is the story…


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