Nina Simone

Artform: Music

By Ciara Hayes

I ain’t got no home, ain’t got no shoes
Ain’t got no money, ain’t got no class
Ain’t got no skirts, ain’t got no sweater
Ain’t got no perfume, ain’t got no bed
Ain’t got no man

Ain’t got no mother, ain’t got no culture
Ain’t got no friends, ain’t got no schoolin’
Ain’t got no love, ain’t got no name
Ain’t got no ticket, ain’t got no token
Ain’t got no god

Hey, what have I got?
Why am I alive , anyway?
Yeah, what have I got
Nobody can take away?

Got my hair, got my head
Got my brains, got my ears
Got my eyes, got my nose
Got my mouth, I got my smile
I got my tongue, got my chin
Got my neck, got my boobies
Got my heart, got my soul
Got my back, I got my sex

I got my arms, got my hands
Got my fingers, got my legs
Got my feet, got my toes
Got my liver, got my blood

I’ve got life, I’ve got my freedom
I’ve got life
I’ve got the life
And I’m going to keep it
I’ve got the life

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933, Nina Simone was introduced to music from a very young age. She was classically trained in the piano and once expressed a desire to become the first African-American concert pianist. Through a fund established by her music teacher to help her pay for her education, Simone entered Juilliard School of Music in New York to continue her training. [1]

Having to leave the school when she ran out of money, Simone began singing in jazz clubs in Atlantic City where she began her fusion of jazz, soul, blues, gospel, pop and folk. She recorded her first album in 1957 which included her hit version of George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘I Loves You Porgy’ from the musical, Porgy & Bess.

Her career continued into the 1960s, where she recorded some of her most famous songs, including ‘I Put a Spell on You’. This was also the period in which Simone became active in the Civil Rights Movement sweeping America.

She wrote her first civil rights song, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ in response to the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama by white supremacists, which killed four African American girls. This attack had ignited a fury in Simone. [2] The song was more forthright and direct than many of the protest songs that had come before it, and it created a surge of outrage at its premiere in Carnegie Hall in 1964.

Comedian and activist Dick Gregory said, ‘ “Mississippi Goddam”— that’s using God’s name in vain. She said it, talking about ‘Mississippi, goddamn you.’ We all wanted to say it, but she said it. That’s the difference that set her aside from the rest of them.’ [3]

The song became a political anthem, its lyrics full of anger and despair, in direct contrast to the jaunty tune that accompanied it:

All I want is equality
For my sister, my brother, my people and me
Yes, you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine, just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie.
But this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you anymore
You keep on saying ‘Go slow’. [5]

Watch Nina Simone perform ‘Mississippi Goddam’

1965 was the year of the infamous Selma to Montgomery marches. Voter suppression among black communities was widespread in Southern States such as Alabama. In response to the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson by white segregationists during a peaceful protest in Marion, Alabama in February, and the ongoing suppression of black voters, Martin Luther King Jr and his supporters organised a 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital, Montgomery. The 600 protestors did not get far before being brutally attacked by Alabama state troopers with whips, nightsticks and tear gas. The violence was caught on camera and was reported by the many journalists watching the protests, which raised huge sympathy and support across the US. Priests, rabbis, nuns, and social activists came to Selma to join the march. It wasn’t until the third attempt, and a pledge of support for the protestors by President Lyndon B Johnson that the protestors finally reached Montgomery. [4]

While she didn’t necessarily share Dr. King’s pacifist beliefs, Simone participated in the march, and performed her song, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ to the crowd when they reached the capital. After her performance, she was introduced to Dr. King, telling him, ‘I’m not non-violent.’

‘That’s ok, sister’, he replied, ‘You don’t have to be.’ [2]

Links Used



[3] Light, A., 2017. What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd.


[5] Feldstein, R., 2005. “I Don’t Trust You Anymore”: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s. Journal of American History, 91(4).