Nina Simone, inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, is now known not only for her mix of jazz, blues and folk music from the 1950s but for her contributions to the civil rights movement. She nurtured her music passion from the beginning. After leaving the Julliard School in New York where she was studying classical piano, she turned to performing in nightclubs focusing mainly on jazz, blues and folk music. Becoming an activist, she later left the U.S. for Europe to escape racism and segregation.
Before moving to Europe and finally settling in France until she died, she also lived in many homes in many countries such as Barbados, Liberia, Ghana, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. And it was in Monrovia, Liberia, in the 1970s that she danced naked on tables in a discotheque one wild night, perhaps to lift her mood and ease anxiety.
She had then been facing serious racism back in what she called “the United Snakes of America” and was often prevented from performing thanks to her activism and protest songs.
Simone discovered her talent as a pianist at an early age, and she usually performed at church revival meetings as a child. When she was 12, she refused to play at a church revival because her parents were asked to sit at the back of the hall. That began her activism, with many of her songs condemning racism.
Her most influential protest song, “Mississippi Goddam”, was inspired by the Alabama church bombing and the murder of activist Medgar Evers.
“It was more than I could take,” Simone recalled. “The bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers were like the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that made no sense until you had fitted the whole thing together. I suddenly realized what it was to be Black in America in 1963, but it wasn’t an intellectual connection…it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination.”
Released as a single, the swear word was bleeped out so that people are not offended yet the song received backlash. Most Southern states banned it. Venues refused to book Simone. Unperturbed, Simone went ahead to sing the song at civil rights rallies and marches, including the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March in early 1965. Simone changed the lyric during scores of live performances around the country and the world to reflect what was happening at a particular moment.
Still, she was not a happy person as the industry continued to cancel her owing to her protest songs. She was also being harassed for tax-dodging. What is more, she had also lost a few friends including Malcolm X and playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Racial segregation and domestic issues with her husband weren’t getting any better and she started suffering from depression. So in her early 40s, the soul legend decided to leave the U.S.
She first went to Barbados, where reports said she had an affair with the married prime minister. She then went to Liberia, after her friend Miriam Makeba had invited her. Makeba was also strongly against racism. In the U.S., the South African singer had recorded dozens of records and signed to record label RCA Victor. But back home in South Africa, her passport had been canceled and her mother and other family members had been killed in the Sharpeville massacre.
She and her husband, Stokely Carmichael, lived in Guinea and sometimes Liberia. During that period, Liberia wasn’t doing badly. It had a liberal government, and expats were most satisfied with work and life there. The environment attracted Simone and getting a cottage by the beach, she partied a lot at night with the elite in the country. She had a few lovers, too. And to perhaps release stress, she danced nude in the discotheque in Monrovia in September 1974.
OZY writes: “That night at The Maze, the Monrovian discotheque, Simone was in her element. She was dancing to American pop music and drinking to her heart’s content while the movers and shakers of society grooved along. Then, to the surprise of everyone, the superstar suddenly took off her dress and danced blissfully naked on tabletops all night. It was a much-needed relief for a woman struggling to shed multiple burdens.”
“She was very emotional and felt very much at home,” James Dennis, then-president of the Press Union of Liberia, told OZY.
By 1977, Simone had moved to Europe before finally settling in France. But she never forgot her stay in Liberia, and often said that living in Africa was the happiest time in her life.
Her Liberian experience even inspired a song, “Liberian Calypso”. Here are excerpts of the lyrics:
1974, that’s the year
I went straight home ’cause I had so much to fear
I had dreamed for oh so long
That one day I’d be going home
There’s so much gossip in the town
Nobody knows what’s really going down
Stench, smells, I couldn’t stand it
The dirtier you are, the more you’re here (run, Nina)
Oh I got to go (run, Nina)
Oh the man at the door (run, Nina)
Run as fast as you can (run, Nina)
God is holding me hand
When I first got to Africa, I was glad
I thought at last I wouldn’t be had
So I went to a disco-tech one night
And danced myself right out of sight