Black fire
‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ dir. Liz Garbus

What Happened, Miss Simone?, a new feature-length documentary on Netflix about the life and music of America’s most defiantly unclassifiable popular performer, begins with footage of Nina Simone arriving on stage at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. She stands next to her piano, looking slowly around the room. Her facial expression is hard to read, but she seems to be taking the measure of her audience, trying to decide whether they are worthy of her. She waits until the applause has ended, until the crowd is silent and attentive. Only upon some inner cue does she take her seat at the instrument.

By the time of this concert, Nina Simone had been taking her seat at the piano for 40 of her 43 years on Earth. She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, in 1933, into a segregated North Carolina town. She learnt to play piano as a toddler, in the black churches where her mother, a preacher and housemaid, led revival meetings. From the age of seven, she began receiving classical piano lessons from a white teacher, and had to cross the railroad tracks to attend them. Simone’s prodigious musical gifts were her ticket out of rural poverty, but the psychic cost of that passage was dear. She was isolated: a brilliant black girl in a world that barely recognised her humanity. Loneliness and anger would be her lifelong companions.

Simone’s ambition to become a concert pianist was derailed when the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia rejected her on audition. She believed that this rejection was because she was black; in her own words, she “never really got over that jolt of racism”. Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone out of expediency: she was trying to hide her paying gigs as a barroom musician from her devout mother.

Simone never played a song the same way twice. Her studio recordings are acclaimed, but it was her live shows that made her legendary. She brought all her classical training and skill in improvisation to bear on her piano playing, adding complex counterpoint to the simplest of chord progressions. She regarded both Bach and the blues as “perfect structures”. Then there was her singing voice, which was absolutely distinctive: “Sometimes I sound like gravel, and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.” Whatever her vocal tone — and it might shift within the space of a single phrase — Simone brought more honesty to her performances than any audience should have the right to expect. We watch her in this documentary performing ‘I Loves You Porgy’ (her first chart hit, in 1959) during a television episode of Playboy’s Penthouse. Hugh Hefner smirks and simpers. Simone is the only black person in the room. The song stands every chance of being demeaning, but Simone makes it tender, sincere — she makes it her own. Her long-time guitarist Al Schackman remarks that Simone didn’t interpret songs so much as metamorphose them.

In 1959 Simone was still performing in wasp-waited evening dresses and straightening her hair, but that would change. The abundance of live performance footage in this documentary allows us, among other things, to see her pride take wing. At the height of her powers, in the heat of the Civil Rights movement, she became visually, as well as musically, iconic: natural hair, vibrant robes, Cleopatra eyeliner. She was African royalty, as Attallah Shabazz, eldest daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, describes her. Simone was friends with Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael: she was no longer the only black person in the room. A great deal of extraordinary music came out the Civil Rights movement, but Simone’s songs convey a rare urgency, even today. ‘Mississippi Goddam’ moves like a train on the verge of derailment, while her version of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Pirate Jenny’ — with Jenny refigured as a Southern black housemaid, just like Simone’s mother was — has a rage that could burn through steel. In the 1980s she stopped singing these songs. “There is no reason to sing those songs. There is no movement,” she lamented. “Everybody is gone.”

Despite having once declared to King’s face that she was “not non-violent”, his assassination broke her heart. “They’re shooting us down one by one,” she told her audience, three days after King’s murder. And the violence meted out to black activists was not the only violence in Simone’s life. Her husband Andy Stroud, who was also her long-term manager, was terribly abusive. He beat her and he raped her. This documentary lets Stroud off far too easily. Despite being interviewed on camera, and despite the testimony of Simone’s friends and of the couple’s daughter, Lisa, Stroud is never asked any direct questions about his behaviour. He considered Simone’s political commitments a bad career move, “Cutting the legs out from all the work I had done,” as he characterises it.

Simone left her marriage and her country at the same time, moving to Barbados in 1970, and then to Liberia, and then Switzerland. In self-imposed exile from America, she moved through Europe, touring again. “I know you love me,” she told a Parisian audience, and they did. She had softened, but only a little.

Simone died in 2003, but the day after this documentary debuted on Netflix in late June, her voice rang out from the main stage of the Glastonbury music festival, where Kanye West delivered a headlining performance. West has sampled Simone many times for his own songs, and though it is doubtful that Simone, were she still alive, would be much impressed with West’s music — she once said that she didn’t like rap “at all” — she might recognise in him a fellow spirit. West gave much the same look from the Glastonbury stage that Simone gave her audience in Montreux: a look of considered appraisal, easily dismissed as pure arrogance. Simone insisted on both her genius and her blackness, as does West. It is easier for him, being a man, but it is still not easy, and not a claim that West can make without bitter arguments over his legitimacy as an artist.

“I am not white,” wrote Simone in her journal, underlining the words: she understood that whiteness, as much as blackness, was a construct, a set of expectations, and that these expectations might crush her. Freedom, she said, was to not be afraid, and by pouring into her songs such a mixture of terror and of fearlessness, she has gifted to her musical heirs a substance that inches closer to the freedom she thirsted for.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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