In 2015, the Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? tried to convince us that to tell the story of Nina Simone only as a successful singer was to deceive ourselves into constructing a portrait that was not only narrow but also misleading.
Documentary director Liz Garbus controlled her storytelling and aimed for the conclusion that Simone was perhaps, a successful singer because of the deficiencies of her humanity.
Simone was nicknamed the “High Priestess of Soul”. In retrospect, the moniker is a little on the nose; she could hold an audience spellbound by her performance on an evening of enchantment. In the morning, what they read in the newspaper about Simone, scared them.
Like a Delphic priestess, Simone brought the mirth and the mystery. Her essence was both things.
From To Be Young Black and Gifted to I Love You, Porgy, Simone’s greatness was palpable.
And then, one day, she told Martin Luther King Jr., “I am not nonviolent“, taking the trouble to let MLK know she will go where he is hesitant to go for civil rights.
In 1970, another comparable legend, Maya Angelou would write of Simone: “She is loved or feared, adored or disliked, but few who have met her music or glimpsed her soul react with moderation.”
Simone was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the 1980s. She said she was disappointed to find out that late in her life. It would seem the confoundment that she visited upon a watchful world had been given back to her.
However, in a biography released a year after her death in 2003, Sylvia Hampton and David Nathan argue that Simone had been aware she was mentally unstable at least, in the 1960s and not later.
The biography, Break Down and Let It All Out, explained that Simone was on medication at that time and this was known to a few friends.
But bipolar disorder also makes for a more nuanced conversation on who Simone was and at what time. She was problematic to those closest people to her; that has to be said.
But how much of the problem she gave was hers to give? As the self swung like a pendulum between mania and depression, how much of reality did Simone fail to grasp?
Writing for The Guardian, Dorian Lynskey makes the point that her diagnoses came “long after her volatility had inflicted irreparable damage”.
In 1999, when she sat down with Tim Sebastian on BBC’s HARDtalk, Simone narrated that in 1985, she shot at a record company executive but missed. She had been trying to kill him because she suspected that the company was duping her on royalties.
In 1995, Simone felt her neighbour’s son’s laughter was too loud. So she shot and injured him with an air gun.
One-time friend of Simone’s, Janis Ian, also wrote in her autobiography Society’s Child: My Autobiography that Simone once threatened a store cashier to take back a pair of sandals Simone had worn already.
To make her point clear to the cashier, Simone pulled out a gun.
These and others marked a pattern of aggression that fractured Simone’s relationships. Incidentally, Simone herself was a victim of an abusive husband who was her manager.
There is a certain kind of difficulty in discussing what sadism means to subjects like Simone. One hopes not to be paternalistic but leave room for individuals to interpret their agency.
Simone herself always feared she would be misunderstood. She feared distortion anytime she poured out her soul.
Her expressions were unique to her even if they were weird to all.
For instance, to measure the wellness of her marriage and even mental health, Simone would gauge her libido. In the aforementioned documentary, we come to know that if she was in the mood for sex, Simone recognised that she was happy.
We hear in the film, her voice as a narrator: “My attitude toward sex was that we should be having it all the time.” Consequently, if the number of times is minimal, Simone took that for a sign of some lack.
However unique her self-expressions may be, there were consequences and sufferers too. Simone was not a good mother to her daughter.
Simone’s only daughter, Lisa, told the UK Daily Mail: “I was not a happy child when I was alone with her. My mum shot me down a lot, attacked me in public. It is easy to attack children, they are small and depend on you.”
Simone left her daughter as a toddler with her husband and travelled to stay in Liberia, West Africa in 1974. When Lisa was able to regain a connection with her mum, the daughter was a teenager.
Lisa longed for motherly love but she found none after she went to Liberia to live with Simone. The young woman went back to the US.
This estrangement seems like a permanent scar on Lisa who reportedly had no kind words even after her mother died.
And her mother was the four-time Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter who wrote the hit-song, My Baby Just Cares For Me. Simone’s daughter awfully missed out on the love her mother got in and about that song.
But this was Nina Simone: bad mother, abused lover, volatile woman, civil rights champion and a near-perfect singer and songwriter. That was the whole package.
All her life, she dared us to take it or leave it.