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The Radical Politics of Nina Simone

Nina Simone, who died on this day in 2003, is often remembered for her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement – but she was also a socialist who saw revolution as the path to true equality.

We never talked about men or clothes. It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution – real girls’ talk.’ – Nina Simone

Nina Simone’s remark about not discussing fashion but ‘Marx, Lenin and revolution’ offers a glimpse into the daily political life of Simone away from her more well-known story as civil rights activist and musician. This ‘girls’ talk’ took place with her friend and playwright Lorraine Hansberry – a conversation between two Black women that, as Simone says, was not about men or clothes, but about the creative work they were producing, and how they saw its role in the liberation of their community.

Referencing Hansberry’s autobiographical play Young, Gifted and Black, Simone later wrote a song with the same title in tribute to her friend and comrade after Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at the tragically young age of 34. This friendship and comradeship demonstrates how intimate conversations between political Black women have the power to inspire. They take place away from the gaze of men, away from white people; they can be places of respite in which one can re-energise and rejoin the wider movement that often marginalises and erases the political insights of Black women.

To say Nina Simone has been ‘erased’ would be absurd. She is one of the most celebrated musicians of the twentieth century. There’s no need to write another article, biography or analysis of her political songs. But on the anniversary of her death, we can look at how the story of Simone’s political life is told, and who is telling it; at what they choose to include, and what they do in fact ‘erase’.

Nina Simone is often spoken about as a civil rights activist, and she was. But the civil rights movement encompassed many differing political views on what liberation looked like. Some like the NAACP wanted liberal reforms that were criticised for only being beneficial to the African-American middle class. Black nationalists sought economic independence and a new Black state separate from racist white America, although it was arguably unclear what that new state would look like beyond a Black version of capitalism. As such, not all civil rights activists were referencing Marx or Lenin as an example of the conversations that they had with friends.

For a woman of fierce intelligence, talent, and brilliance, who knew exactly how she wanted to be heard through her music and performance, we can take this as a statement of purpose rather than as a passing comment. Nina Simone was telling us she was a communist, a comrade, a revolutionary.

Sometimes Black women artists, and especially musicians, who demonstrate some form of left-wing politics get deradicalised into safer versions that make white listeners more comfortable, as white communist folk musician Phil Ochs humorously sang in his anthem ‘Love Me I’m a Liberal’. Liberal whites may go to civil rights rallies, Ochs sings, ‘but don’t talk about revolution, that’s going a little too far.’

Simone wanted to go that far. Written in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in September 1963—a white supremacist terror attack which killed four young Black girls aged between 11 and 14—Simone sings in ‘Mississippi Goddamn’:

They try to say it’s a communist plot

All I want is equality

For my sister my brother my people and me.’

This could be read as a response to the McCarthyite ‘red scare’, in which any talk of equality was conflated with communism and ‘anti-American’ sentiment. But when read in light of her ‘girls’ talk’ with Hansberry and the politics of her social circle including James Baldwin, Stokely Carmicheal and Langston Hughes—all activists that engaged with socialism—these lyrics are a political statement. Simone is on the left because she sees it as the only route to true equality; ‘go slow’ reforms that placate a racist state are not an option.

We also see reflections of an internationalist politic in ‘Backlash Blues’, the lyrics of which were taken from a poem written for Simone by Langston Hughes:

But the world is big

Big and bright and round

And it’s full of other folks like me

Who are black, yellow, beige and brown.’

One of the last things Hughes wrote, the poem reflects on Vietnam and on African-American men being sent to fight an imperialist war while being treated as second-class citizens at ‘home’. Simone tells the listener that she and other racialised groups who are oppressed by the many incarnations of ‘Mr Backlash’ are, in fact, the majority in the world – a statement reflective of a political moment in which organisations like the Black Panther Party were seeking to build international coalitions with other people around the world suffering the effects of American imperialism.

The political history of the Black US left is important to contextualising and understanding Simone’s work, but I want to return to the ‘girls’ talk’ between Simone and Hansberry. To my ear as a Black woman, socialist, feminist, and musician, the politics of these private and intimate conversations between radical Black women appear in Simone’s music. Take ‘Four Women’. Often called a feminist anthem, the song describes the enforced class and gender roles and stereotypes that Black women have found themselves trapped in: the ‘mammy’; the ‘tragic mulatto’; the sex worker; the angry Black woman.

To me, the song goes beyond a simplistic analysis of slavery and the effect of its legacy on Black women today. Rather, I imagine Hansberry and Simone talking about their own lives and the lives of other Black women using a Marxist analysis that encompasses race, gender, and class; they would talk about how racism and capitalism created the lives of the women in the song, Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches – the lives of Black women who find themselves constantly having to struggle, survive, and resist.

The political life of Nina Simone cannot be done justice in one short article. She was a tour de force who brought the message of freedom, equality, justice and liberation to everyone who had the pleasure of hearing her music. But it’s important we don’t pigeonhole her as a civil rights activist: she was a revolutionary – a woman who engaged with the work of Marx and Lenin, and who brought that revolutionary praxis to her music in a way that continues to resonate with us today.