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Nina Simone was a legendary jazz, blues, and folk singer and civil rights activist. She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina. She began playing piano and singing in her church’s choir at just four years old. Simone grew up poor as the sixth of seven children.
After seeing her potential, Simone’s music teacher helped set up a fund to pay for Simone’s education, and she went on to earn a scholarship to study classical piano at the Julliard School of Music in New York City.
Eventually running out of money, Simone left Julliard and moved to Philadelphia and tried to continue her education at the Curtis Institute of Music. However, she was denied admission due to the fact that she was black.
Simone turned away from classical music at that point and began playing and singing jazz and blues music at local clubs during the 1950s. She took on her stage name of Nina Simone and won a following from the likes of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin.
Simone released her first album in 1958. The influence of classical music in her work caused her music to defy standard definitions. While some referred to her as a jazz singer and the “High Priestess of Soul,” Simone preferred to be referred to as a folk singer.
In the 1960s, Simone became known as the voice of the civil rights movement and penned the song “Mississippi Goddam” about the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls and the assassination of Medgar Evers. She also wrote “Why (The King of Love Is Dead)” in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
After growing weary of racial injustice in the United States, Simone lived abroad in Liberia, Switzerland, England, and Barbados before settling in France. Simone continued to write and tour through the 90s and published her autobiography I Put a Spell on You in 1992. Simone died April 21, 2003.
Simone’s outspoken support of black pride is part of her inspiring legacy. Check out the following video to hear Simone talk about blackness in her own words.