“Music is a gift and a burden I’ve had since I can remember who I was.”
Author: Alan Light
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Inspired by the Netflix documentary of the same name, this biography charts the tempestuous life of musical prodigy and civil rights activist Nina Simone.
Simone was born Eunice Waymon, in North Carolina, 1933. From a young age she was drawn to classical piano, with Bach a particular favourite, and formed her talent by playing in the Methodist church where her mother was a preacher. But growing up poor, and black, meant her opportunities were limited, until two women from the community saw her play and decided to take her under their wing. She began formal lessons, and later a Eunice Waymon Fund was set up to further her playing.
While her path to greatness may have seemed destined as a young girl, entering into the wider world had plenty of challenges. Simone was bitter at being denied entry to a prestigious Philadelphia music school, and in a way this shaped her whole musical career: struggling against the status quo, struggling for recognition, in a world that she deemed would not accept her for her blackness or her womanhood. She became involved in the civil rights movement, writing and performing protest songs, but despaired that no progress would ever be made. She spent several years in an abusive marriage with a man who was also her manager.
Simone is simultaneously classed as a genius and a difficult person, a diva who would often stop in the middle of playing if she felt that the audience wasn’t being respectful. Perhaps shedding some light on this, in the 1980s she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This is a woman who came up in an era when, as Malcolm X said, “the most disrespected person in America is the black woman.” And yet, she gave so much to the world through music.
This book uses many of the same sources as the documentary, but is still worth the read if you’ve already seen it. Light has painted a full picture of Simone as a brilliant, frenetic, impassioned musician who has left behind a true legacy.