DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Here's a question. What does freedom mean to you?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NINA SIMONE: I'll tell you what freedom is to me - no fear. I mean, really, no fear.
GREENE: That answer comes from singer Nina Simone. She was a passionate performer and civil rights activist born under a different name, Eunice Waymon. She died as Nina Simone in 2003. Her music remains better known than the rest of her story. But a new documentary just out asks the question, "What Happened, Miss Simone?" Filmmaker Liz Garbus looked for answers, and she spoke with NPR's Michele Norris. Just a warning, some listeners might find language in this story offensive.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: So who was the Nina Simone that you knew when you started this project?
LIZ GARBUS: I knew the Nina Simone that I listened to in college. That was Nina Simone, who was the hard-core activist. And when I was invited to pitch to make a film about Nina Simone, I knew the music. I didn't know the woman. So here's a young girl who grows up in the church. Both of her parents are heavily involved with her church. Her mother is both a housekeeper and a minister. And, you know, people quickly realize that this is a young girl with extraordinary musical talent. And the town comes together, black and white - and this is the Jim Crow South; this is North Carolina - and raises a fund for her to study classical music. And she studies with a Russian immigrant named Ms. Massinovitch. And Nina falls in love with Bach. The young Nina, whose name is actually Eunice Waymon, falls in love with Bach. And that is her dream. I didn't know that Nina was a classically trained pianist who had gone to Juilliard. But then, when you start to understand that part of her upbringing and her training, you start to, you know, be able to deconstruct, as you listen, the way that she infuses a jazz standard. And she infuses it with classical counterpoint and blues and soul. And her musical talent and training is evident in every bar.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVES YOU, PORGY")
N. SIMONE: (Singing) I loves you, Porgy. Don't let him take me. Don't let him handle me and drive me mad.
GARBUS: She talked about herself sort of as existing in between the white and the black keys of the piano. And, you know, that's how she grew up, you know, kind of in between the white and black - you know, sort of this child prodigy treasured but of course living on the other side of the tracks and, of course, facing racism. When she performed, when she was 12 years old, a classical recital, her parents were asked to sit in the back of the room. Nina refused to play if they were in the back of the room. So she was always living in opposition, sometimes dangerous opposition.
NORRIS: Why did she change her name?
GARBUS: So she - Nina's at Juilliard. And the money runs out after a year.
NORRIS: The money that she was given to study music at Juilliard, that runs out...
GARBUS: That's right. So the money that her townsfolk had collected for her has run out. And she applies to Curtis, in which, if she was accepted, there would - tuition would be paid for by the institute itself. And she's rejected from Curtis. And she ends up starting to play in the bars of Atlantic City in order to support herself. Her whole family had moved north to be around her while she was studying. And she was ashamed that she was playing in bars. She had come up in a very religious family, playing church music and classical music. And here she was in the bars and nightclubs where people were drinking, and she was providing entertainment. She changed her name to avoid being on her mother's radar.
NORRIS: In your film, some of the hardest scenes to watch are when the adult daughter, Lisa Simone, looks back on her childhood.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?"
LISA SIMONE: My mom rarely referred to Jim Crow segregation and a lot of the racial issues that were going on at that stage in her life. But she did tell me about times when she was told her nose was too big, her lips were too full and her skin was too dark. And after she was told that, they probably told her there's only certain things you'll be good for in your life.
GARBUS: I think Lisa had spent a long time trying to set the record straight about her mom. And that's a very hard task because the record about her mom isn't straight (laughter). Her mom had a life with many rough edges. There are a lot of people out there who don't have nice things to say about Nina Simone. You know, she occupies that space that people called a difficult woman. That's a term laden with a lot of sexism, as many male performers, you know, could get away with some of the stuff that Nina would pull which would get her labeled difficult. But Nina truly did have difficulty in her life. She did, I think, suffer from an undiagnosed mental illness for most of her 20s and 30s. So this was Lisa's mother, a woman who was in an abusive marriage, who could be abusive herself, who was in turmoil about her career though totally dedicated to it. And so setting that record straight for Lisa is no easy task. And Lisa, she feels now - I can speak for her - that her mother's story has been told, and she doesn't have to correct the record.
NORRIS: Nina Simone was known as activist. Do they understand fully the price she paid for that?
GARBUS: I don't think it's understood how different Nina was from some of the other entertainers at the time. Of course, you know, there are many great contemporaries of Nina - Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin - who were able to participate in the movement and nurture the commercial side of their career. And Nina really wasn't able to do that. Nina's political trajectory was - you know, in 1963, after the Birmingham church bombing, that's when Nina first identifies herself becoming involved with the movement. That's when she sat down and in 20 minutes wrote one of the most important songs of the civil rights movement, "Mississippi Goddam," where she let her anger and rage and sadness poor out of her.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI GODDAM")
N. SIMONE: (Singing) Alabama's gotten me so upset. Tennessee made me lose my rest. And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.
GARBUS: As her career progressed, she wrote some of the greatest anthems of the civil rights movement, "Young, Gifted And Black," "Backlash Blues." And she surrounded herself with a community of intellectuals and radicals, like Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin and Langston Hughes and Miriam Makeba. And she was radicalized. There's an interview with Nina in the early '90s where she's being interviewed for Ebony magazine. And they say to her, you know, well, do you regret having been involved with the civil rights movement? Because she was saying that the industry punished her for her involvement. And she says, well, she'd probably do the whole thing over again but that she does regret it 'cause her music has no relevance anymore. And I think we can see today that she was wrong there, that her music is so relevant.
NORRIS: Liz Garbus, this has been a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking to us.
GARBUS: Thank you so much for having me.
NORRIS: The film is "What Happened, Miss Simone?"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINNER MAN")
N. SIMONE: (Singing) Oh, sinner man, where you gonna run to? Sinner man, where you gonna run to?
GREENE: Our colleague Michele Norris telling the story of Nina Simone, whose music you can find at npr.org.
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