Nina Simone’s music has always had a big impact on me. She had aspirations to become a classical pianist but was denied entry to the prestigious school she had hoped would lead her to her dream–an act of blatant racism and sexism. But a soul like Nina’s could not be squashed by the ignorance of the times. She went into more popular music, performing, and singing…to bide her time. It was a fallback. A plan B. How lucky for us. She had everything it took to become a brilliant classical pianist, but she would not have had the wide and lasting impact that she had if her intended path had worked out as she’d planned. And the anger that came through when she struck the keys, the desperation and hopefulness in the growl of her voice, the clear and direct hit of the lyrics she sang would also not have been so potent or stayed with us as they have if the rest of her life had turned out like she’d planned. Have not pity or remorse, but only gratitude and recognition that she suffered and turned her pain into goodness that might heal each of us a little.
It’s February again; black history month. Reminding us that persecution and oppression will exist as long as humanity does; That education, empathy, participation, and perseverance are our weapons; That art, music, and expression have the power to free our souls. From the ends of whips to the covers of magazines to pocketbooks too thin to buy respect, no one can pull all of those things out from within a single song like the great Nina Simone could. “Then I’d sing because I’d know…”