Miss Simone, you are idolized, even loved, by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone? – Maya Angelou
This is the opening question of the biographical documentary “What happened, Miss Simone?” directed by Liz Garber (2015), and in fact, the whole movie tries to give a possible answer. As this question brings a dose of expectation, it also brings certain sadness. The answer goes off the stage, stretches into darkness, after the show is over, and the lights go out. It evades and goes past the ovations, the applause, the praises like unique, incredible, fantastic one and only Nina Simone! The answer lies behind the curtains, tangled somewhere among the loneliness, fatigue and constant grueling battle on all fronts in her life, somewhere between the circumstances surrounding her.
How did Eunice Waymon become Nina Simone?
There was a prodigy girl named Eunice Waymon, born in 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, who started playing the piano when she was only three years old. She dreamed of becoming the first black classical pianist in America. There was nothing else on her mind. After a year and a half at the Juilliard School of Music, she applied for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She was not accepted, and the reason, as she later found out, was racism (Paradoxically, two days before her death, she was awarded an honorary diploma from the same institute). But this girl had no other option; she had to get a job to support her family. Eunice started singing pop songs, classical, spirituals, and all kinds of music in bars and nightclubs. To hide from her mother, a Methodist minister, that she sings “devil’s music,” she became Nina Simone (Nina – little one, Simone came from the French actress Simone Signoret.)
The marriage with Andy Stroud
And then came love! And with it a lot of troubles. She married Andrew (Andy) Stroud, who later became her manager, and soon they had their daughter Lisa. In 1963 Nina’s goal to be the first black female artist to play in Carnegie Hall came true. “I’m in Carnegie Hall, finally, but I’m not playing Bach” a little bit disappointed, she writes to her parents, because as we remember, her biggest wish was to become a classical pianist.
After that, her popularity exploded. Concurrently, the pressure from Andy, too. He managed her finances and schedules, pushing her all the time, focused only on her career. She was working too hard and touring too much.
The constant work and pressure made her always tired, with many sleepless nights and music constantly playing in her mind. Simone started doubting herself as she faced depression, while Andy abused her emotionally, physically and psychologically. “Andrew protected me against everybody but himself. He wrapped himself around me like a snake. I worked like a dog, and I was scared of him… and Andrew beat me up… Andrew and I talked about my possible suicide, he let me know that he would not only not suffer, but he would be relieved. I hate him – I have every intention of leaving him.” Finally, she did leave him in 1970. “I ain’t nothing to give, Andrew. And I’m too tired to even talk about it. You go your way; I’ll go mine. Having as little to do with human beings as possible – in some weird way, I’m in peace”, says her note to Andy.
Civil Rights Movement’s Icon
While Andy wanted her to become the biggest star and win all awards, she wanted something else; she felt something was missing. And she did find that purpose of hers that injected a new impulse in her life. “I choose to reflect on the times and the situations in which I find myself. That is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved… So, I don’t think you have a choice – how can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” She was a part of the Civil rights movement because she felt needed, especially after 15.09.1963, when four black schoolgirls were killed in the Birmingham church bombing. That was the birth of Alabama Goddam, where she speaks openly about things others don’t dare to talk about. And swears.
“Now I could sing to help my people, and that became the mainstay of my life. Not classical piano, not classical music, not even popular music, but civil rights music. I got to know Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Andrew Young, actors, actresses, poets, writers, people like myself who felt compelled to take the stand that I have”. Nina Simone became the icon of the movement, even though political activism was disastrous for her career. She wanted black people to be aware and curious about themselves; she wanted them to find their own black identity while being one of the first black female activists.
After years had passed, she said: “So it is my role. But sometimes, I wish it wasn’t. I think that the artists who don’t get involved in preaching messages probably are happier, but you see, I have to live with Nina, and that is very difficult”.
Fighting her own demons
Besides the battles in the outside world, she also had difficult internal battles. “My mother was Nina Simone 24/7. And that’s where it became a problem, when she was performing, she was brilliant, she was loved. She was also a revolutionary. She found a purpose for the stage, a place from which she could use her voice to speak out for her people. But when the show ended, everybody went home. She was alone and was still fighting, but she was fighting her own demons, full of anger and rage. She couldn’t live with herself. And everything fell apart”, her daughter Lisa remembers.
After leaving Andy and the US, she felt free for a moment in Liberia. But even though she escaped, her inner struggles continued to follow her. “She went from being my comfort to being the monster in my life,” Lisa later claimed that her mother emotionally and physically mistreated her.
“Inside I’m screaming: Someone, help me, but the sound isn’t audible – like screaming without a voice,” are Nina’s words.
From Liberia, she goes to Europe, Switzerland, France, and The Netherlands. It is difficult to testify to her fall as a star, as a person, as a human being. Hitting the bottom, her friends offered help. She was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed medicine to help her with her mood swings.
“I’m sorry I didn’t become the world’s first black classical pianist. I think I would have been happier. I’m not very happy now,” after many years, Simone tore up these words, which contain all the sorrow and grief of this world, fully aware that it is too late.
After seeing the documentary, the short answer to the title would be: “It happened a lot, Miss Simone! And it was not an easy experience either, given the quantity of emotions covering the whole spectrum, in enormous doses and various elusive shades laid down in front of us as viewers. Too much pain, sadness, despair, all kinds of difficulties, hardships, injustices… and in the center of all this sorrow stands the untouched musical genius of Nina Simone and her remarkably brilliant voice that can sometimes sound “like gravel, and sometimes like coffee and cream.”
Eunice Waymon would have become Nina Simone inevitably because, simply put, such energy cannot remain trapped in one body; it just erupts and enchants. But the question remains whether she would have necessarily turned into a tragic story or such exceptional people always carry the burden and pressure of the environment?
For a moment, let us stop the film and rewind to the moment when a young girl with a strong passion for music wants to enrol at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Suppose she enrolls because her brilliance is valued without racial discrimination. Suppose Andy treats his wife gently, kindly, and carrying…
Would Nina Simone have experienced the same tragic end?