Unconventional Mentor no. 32 - Nina Simone

“What kept me sane was knowing that things would change, and it was a question of keeping myself together until they did.”

Quote: “What kept me sane was knowing that things would change, and it was a question of keeping myself together until they did.” - Nina Simone

Quote: “What kept me sane was knowing that things would change, and it was a question of keeping myself together until they did.” - Nina Simone

There are certain people whose work touches you and you know little or nothing about them as a person, and for me Nina Simone is one of those people. I have listened to her music for years, singing along to her songs and being in awe at the sound she could make with her voice that I couldn’t even come close to making. The song ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ with that wonderful descending piano introduction is one of my favourite pieces, but I had no idea about the woman behind the song. A few years ago, the documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” was released on Netflix and I discovered a little bit more about the woman who made this incredible music that I loved.

The film was an eye opener for me, both in terms of the abuse that Nina Simone faced from her partner and the discrimination she had as a black woman. Being brought up in a very liberal and inclusive family, I have been incredibly naïve about the challenges people of different ethnicities to mine own have faced. I had assumed that if a black woman was successful, then she can’t have been held back by racism. I had no idea that she had been successful in spite of the racism and discrimination she had faced and had to have worked ten times as hard as her white peers to be successful. As white woman it is very easy for me to be ignorant to the challenges that women of colour face in the world today and I am now actively listening and learning to the experiences of people who don’t look like me to understand the challenges they face and to try to do what I can to challenge and remove the inequalities that exist in the world.

“Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music”

Nina Simone attended the Julliard School of music with a dream of becoming a concert pianist. She applied to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but she was turned down, and attributed this to racial discrimination. Following her rejection, she played in a bar in Atlantic City and it was here that she developed the stage name Nina Simone. This quote is so interesting to me, as it highlights just how much people have to fit into a certain box to be recognised as being talented in a particular field or genre. Nina Simone is labelled as a jazz singer and is given credit for her talent in this genre, but she was also a talented classical musician. In the title track from her first album, Little Girl Blue Simone creates a piece of music that is called a quodlibet, which is when two different melodies are combined to create a new piece. She took the melodies of Good King Wenceslas, which is the opening tune, and combined it with a melody by Rodgers and Hart. This was a technique that Bach used in his Goldberg Variations. Nina Simone didn’t look like a classical musician, so despite this being her passion and her talent, she had to take another path in the world. All throughout her career she favoured studying and playing classical music over the pop and jazz music that she played to make a living. I can’t help but wonder what her contribution to classical music would have been had she been allowed to succeed in this field.

“You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” 

Nina Simone used her music as a vehicle to speak out about the inequalities black people in America were facing in the 1960s. In 1963 she wrote and performed the song “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the murder of Medgar Evans and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. This marked the start of her using music and her platform as a well-known musician to support the Civil Rights movement. Whilst she believed in the work she was doing, she felt that it damaged her career and after a series of events she ended up living and working in Liberia. In her later life she lived in Europe and she died in France in 2003.

Nina Simone’s life was not an easy one. She faced abuse from her husband, was diagnosed with breast cancer and bi-polar disorder and she had challenging relationships with her friends and family members. I hadn’t appreciated all of this when I had listened to her music and I’m so pleased I watched the documentary to better understand this incredible woman. It is still available on Netflix so if you like her music at all I would definitely recommend watching it.

Mentor advice: Things will change eventually

The advice that I take from Nina Simone is to remember that all situations will change eventually. The quote that I used at the start of this piece states that “What kept me sane was knowing that things would change, and it was a question of keeping myself together until they did.” and it is a quote worth remembering.

When I have been in a difficult or stressful situation at work, I have learnt to tell myself that things will change, because they always do. If you think about your whole life, a day, a week or a month isn’t that long. When I look back at stressful periods in my life, they seem much more manageable now than they did at the time when I was in the middle of them. And I got through them all, as things always change. Either the situation changes or my outlook and ability to deal with it changes, but it has always changed. For me, keeping myself sane means telling myself that things will change and asking the question, “what can I do right now to ease my situation just a little bit?” It might be to go for a walk to clear my head, talk to someone to get things off my chest, or to focus on the things that I can control. I’ve learnt that I don’t have to fix the whole problem or know how things are going to get better, I just have to trust that they will change and focus on what can be achieved right now.

You can find out more about Nina Simone here and watch the documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” on Netflix here.

Laura Cloke