Paula Matthews celebrates the life of Nina Simone

Recent news reports have told us that more people have died as a result of suicide since the Good Friday Agreement than died in the troubles as a whole. In addition to this, mental health services report that they are in crisis and the suicide rate among women is rising. In this context, for International Women’s Day, it is helpful to look over and celebrate the life of Nina Simone.

Nina Simone was a rich and varied artist  who rooted her work in activism and struggled for many years with her mental health. Born on 21st February 1933 in North Carolina, Simone was originally trained as a classical pianist. She went on record as saying that she viewed herself as a failed concern pianist. There is pathos in this self- image, since her performances as a jazz, folk and blues singer have made a global impact and stood the test of time.

She was a creative innovator, fusing genres in works like Little Girl Blue and her version of Porgy and Bess. There is something intrinsically genuine about Simone’s use of her wide musicality, expressing the emotional range and political drive she seemed to house within. This can be seen in her exquisitely moving rendering of the 1945 tune from Carousel, You’ll Never Walk Alone, which burns with slow power and building emotion all embedded in her classical roots.

In the 1960’s Simone became known as one of the leading voices of the civil rights movement, calling for racial equality in many public forums. During this time pieces such as Mississippi Goddam and Sinnerman emerged, sounding the voice of black protest. In one of her 1960’s recordings, Simone tells her audience that she was so angry at police brutality in Mississippi that she told her manager she was going to go out and buy a gun, but he told her to write a song instead. The song Mississppi Goddam was released in 1964 and was widely banned, reportedly because of the word ‘goddam’ in the title, but Simone believed it was because of her protest against racism.

All of Simone’s work serves as an inspiration to those who struggle with oppression. It may be that her personal struggles permeate her performances and make a true connection. Many of her songs touch on the area of mental health, something which Simone struggled with for many years, reportedly having a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Perhaps the first such song to come to mind is Mood Indigo,

You ain’t never been blue, no, no, no
You ain’t never been blue
Till you’ve had that mood indigo
That feeling goes stealing right down to my shoes
While I just sit here and sigh
Go along blues

I always get that mood indigo
Since my baby said goodbye
And in the evening when the lights are low
I’m so lonely I could cry
For there’s nobody who cares about me
I’m just a poor fool that’s bluer than blue can be
When I get that mood indigo
I could lay me down and die

Perhaps the most striking element of this piece is the parity between the crisp, jazz upbeat and the deep darkness if the lyrics, leading to a haunting sense of disguised depression.

Simone’s career had a dip in the 1970’s and a resurgence in the 1980’s. This is widely attributed to her bipolar disorder, although this is hard to confirm. Her 1976 Live in Montreux concert is widely regarded as evidence of the onset of a deep depression for Simone, with her heart wrenching performance of the song Stars leaving audiences weeping.

Not long after this, Simone seemed to disappear for some time, perhaps receiving treatment or support for her mental health. Later on, Simone’s unapologetic musical power emerged once again and she was seen on stages in Dublin and the West End in the 1990’s before her death in 2003, aged 70, as a result of breast cancer.

Having given us the protest songs of activism like Sinnerman, the deeply romantic My Baby Just Cares for Me, the unapologetic songs of mental health, such as Breakdown and Let it all Out, Simone left behind a footprint of musical diversity and an unfailing lack of apology for who she was, even in terms of her mental health. The strength of Nina Simone is in her complete refusal to be silenced.

Listening to another aspect of her performance in Montreax in 1976 may well encapsulate this as she exclaims over and over ‘I’m free’, resonating with the audience in her celebration of the freedom of self expression:

As a musician, a writer, an artist, an activist and a woman, Simone sounded her voice effectively in an era where black women were not routinely given the floor. She refused to be undermined on the grounds of any sort of stigma, due to gender, race or mental health. She serves as an icon of determination and self expression, even when others did not want to listen. In the context of the lack of support for people facing similar issues in current times, Simone stands as someone to cherish and respect, not in spite of her mental health, but because of it; because she point blank refused to self stigmatise. On international Women’s Day 2018, when the rates of women being effected by mental heath problems are rising, Nina Simone is the ultimate choice for an inspirational woman to celebrate.

Paula Matthews has extensive experience across the community, statutory, voluntary, private and creative sectors working with people of all ages with all kinds of complex needs. She has particular expertise working with people with mental health issues. She is a writer and poet who facilitates in the category A prison, the mental health ward, the locked unit or the complex community setting.

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