THE AMAZING NINA SIMONE: SHE WANTED TO LEAD THE WORLD
illustration by alice rutherford
“Dig her, she’s the boss,” declared the Chicago Defender in January 1963, announcing Nina Simone’s ascension with just the kind of pure, pushy truth the High Priestess of Soul deserved. No one did truth like Nina Simone, and truth was what she demanded in return—true ecstasy, true tears, true feeling from the audiences she set out every show to shake up so much that “when they leave a nightclub where I performed, I just want them to be to pieces.” Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, she was one of eight children who all played the piano, but it was clear from early on that the future Nina Simone—with her perfect pitch and astounding recall—was a prodigy. She was driven, both from within and without, to become a great classical pianist, and when the establishment denied her that, she forged her own kind of classical music instead. It was raw soul and refined technique, jazz and pop and blues and classical, the invention of a brilliant Black woman who wasn’t going to wait for the world to acknowledge her power. Now, all at once, the film world can’t seem to get enough of Nina Simone, with two documentaries and a controversial biopic on deck. The Amazing Nina Simone is the independent work of the bunch, a years-in-the-making film that brought documentarian Jeff L. Lieberman into collaboration with Sam Waymon, Simone’s brother and bandmate, known to movie history for scoring 70s cult great Ganja & Hess and helping to inspire Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Spike Lee’s 2014 remake. The two grew close as they worked together to tell the story of a great icon of black power, black self-love, and towering creativity. “Dig her,” command Waymon and Lieberman and The Amazing Nina Simone: “She’s the boss.” This interview by Rin Kelly.
Just watching footage of Nina Simone performing can be overwhelming. And that was one of her goals—she talked about going into a show with the ultimate goal of making everybody feel, leaving them ‘reelin’’ and shaken up, joyous and rattled.
Sam Waymon: That’s the job—you have to be able to read the audience, too. It’s the audience that tells you how to respond to them. Let’s face it: if you’re gonna perform, you have to be ready and willing to strip yourself naked emotionally on stage. You cannot do that haphazardly. You cannot pretend to be feeling something that you’re not. The audience could tell in a second. She didn’t care about holding her feelings back. She cared about the audience—about making them feel something, yeah. She wanted to make them feel what she was feeling, or make them feel themselves through her music. That’s what we do. That is our responsibility. If you don’t do it that way, then you have to ask yourself, ‘What is the point of going out there on stage?’ Why are you there if you’re not there to have your audience travel through your music, to feel their own pain—let them feel your pain, let them feel their own joy, let them travel emotionally and mentally through a time and space in their lives through music, through art. People would go see her because they want to feel something, they want to travel. The best way to travel is to see someone who can take you there. The audience may not know that that’s why they’re there! This is something subconscious sometimes. But why would someone want to subject themselves to being berated by Nina Simone except that you want to be berated? You want to feel the pain, because let me tell you something: we used to say to each other, ‘I like to feel pain, because that way I know I’m alive.’ Pain lets you know you are alive. Joy lets you know that you are alive. There are people in this world that are emotionally dead, you know that, right? Well, that kind of dead state is very boring to me!
She was astoundingly courageous, performing in some of the situations she did, as part of protests, as a Black woman and a Black public figure who told the truth to a white supremacist world.
Jeff L. Lieberman: [Simone guitarist and musical director] Al Schackman shared with me that in Selma or Montgomery, all the artists basically ended up sharing the same room and sleeping on the floor, because nobody wanted to be near any windows—safety in numbers. It was him and Bill Cosby and James Baldwin, all of these artists together, sort of amazed that you’re sleeping on the floor with these people. But nobody wants to take a chance in that period when assassinations were so numerous.
Sam, you have scars from bats and batons, from when mobs turned on protesters. Did Nina, as the older sister, influence your joining her in the fight?
Sam Waymon: Let me clarify something: I’m from North Carolina. I’m from a town that you had to walk on one side of the street because you were black or the other because you were white. We had to drink out of the separate fountains; I had to go to the balcony for colored folks only. I knew who the members of the KKK were—under those sheets, we knew who they were. It didn’t come from Nina! That doesn’t make any sense. Nina moved to New York when I was a kid, when I was young, but I was still in North Carolina dealing with racism. On my own. I was called the n-word. I remember clearly when I was walking from South Carolina to North Carolina. We were right on the borderline. We had to cross this little old railroad track and path that goes from one part of town to the other. This was when it got really dark, and I heard screams. I heard screams of a young girl up the track. I could see she was being held down by some figure in white. And guess what happened? She was being held down by some KKK people. They were trying to rape this young girl, Black girl. She couldn’t have been no more than 12, 13. My father taught me something and my mother did too: they taught us if you see something, do something about it. She taught us what was right and what was wrong. And because I was brought up in this house, we had to fight for what we believed in no matter what cost—even if we stood alone in that belief. Be steadfast in your beliefs, no matter what. If you believe it, it’s real. I went into automatic gear. I ran up the tracks and I start attacking these white figures. I was skinny as heck. They used to call me Stringbean! They called me Stringbean cuz I could run so fast. I had these skinny legs—you had to catch me to beat me up. But I jumped on them enough to free this girl. She got free and she ran. And they grabbed me and they threw me down on the railroad tracks. It may sound like a sad story—it is, but it has a happy ending. They grabbed me, holding me down on the tracks, and I knew exactly who each member [was]. The pharmacist … I probably shouldn’t say too much! I knew who these people were, and they tried to beat me. Back in those days, the whole thing was white men castrating Black men. That’s what they tried to do, but they did not succeed because I was screaming and yelling. There’s always debris on the tracks, so I found a pipe somewhere next to me. I swung and I hit one guy so hard he fell back. That freed me a little bit. My legs were going one way, my arms were going another, and I could hear the girl further up the tracks: she was gone. I could see the figure, she was saying, ‘Thank you, thank you!’ and bleeding all over the place. She ran. I freed her. That was the most important thing to me. But I’m fighting for my life right now. They tried to castrate me—they pulled down my pants. I don’t want to go any further with this type of story, but they tried their best to humiliate me. What they did back in those days was to kill us, hang us, or castrate us. They wanted to kill me. They had a knife, but I swung and I was free of their grip. That was my experience, which had nothing to do with Nina Simone.
When she was asked to define freedom, she said freedom is living with no fear. She’s seen as so fearless, but she talked about fear a lot.
Jeff L. Lieberman: She feared her own body and her own actions and her own mind, and she feared going into dark places—that kind of thing. But she also had fear just based on the world she lived in. And that’s largely how I believe a lot of Black people in America feel today. There is a certain amount of fear not knowing that you will have safety on your side or law and order on your side.
Sam Waymon: She disregarded her own beauty. She did not understand her own beauty in the beginning—it tormented her. Being a Black girl, being Black at that time, we were not made to feel that we were beautiful people. That was part of the indoctrination that was at the core of who we were. White people offered the blueprint of beauty. Being a Black woman, she had to come to terms with that beauty within her soul, within her heart, because everything at that point had to do with white women. But yet here she was a rising star—she was on the cover of all these magazines—and she still had not come to grips with her own beauty. It took a while. That coupled with the world outside of herself—trying to be a wife, mother, the fact that she was becoming a leader of sorts in the Black community through her songs and music—that’s a lot of pressure. That can tear you apart. You have to be very, very strong and you have to be very vulnerable.
Jeff L. Lieberman: One of the goals of the film was to pay tribute to Black women who were part of the Civil Rights Movement, who get sort of washed out of civil-rights history. You hear the group of five and the group of six, and you hear about Harry Belafonte and even Frank Sinatra. You hear about a lot of men. I don’t know how many people know about Fannie Lou Hamer, but her and Rosa Parks are sort of the only women given their big due—and even Rosa Parks’ history is a more sanitized version. Black women were expected to act in a very particular way, and Nina by far was someone who was not doing that at all. I think even the Black community has trouble recognizing that. It’s not something thrown into the history books. ‘Mississippi Goddam’ was an amazing piece of work that was written in 1963. She was talking about Black freedom well before Stokely Carmichael. She was talking about ideas that didn’t really come into the mass public mind other than that song until three or four years later. She was well ahead of her time.
She described writing that song as firing 10 bullets back at the Klansmen who bombed the 16th St. Baptist Church—she said she wrote it because she wanted to make a weapon to go defend her people and hurt anyone she could ‘identify as being in the way of my people getting some justice for the first time in three hundred years.’
Jeff L. Lieberman: She was fearless in writing the song. She was fearless in performing at Carnegie Hall in front of a largely white audience in 1964, not knowing how they might respond. I mean, the song was profane—just in the use of the ‘goddam.’ Suddenly you have that going on plus you’re calling out the entire state of Mississippi for its racism. Then she’s going on to criticize just about everyone else in the world. She’s criticizing Southern life, she’s criticizing Northern life, she’s criticizing Black males, she’s criticizing Black women. She’s really sick and tired. It’s brilliant on multiple levels, and I think that on the surface, it’s just ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ right? She’s just angry, and she’s putting out some of the baffling things that are going on. But she’s also against this whole idea of ‘go slow.’ ‘We’re not going to go slow anymore.’ And this whole country is full of lies. Like nothing can be trusted. The idea that this country was founded on freedom and even democracy is just complete bullshit to her, and she can’t understand how no one sees this, how four young Black girls can be killed and no justice prevailed.
Sam Waymon: That goes back to the responsibility she had as an artist. She used her fame, her stage, to say those things that she knew people were feeling. It’s like any leader—any leader, they say what they know reflects the hearts and minds of the people they represent. She had the stage; she had the forum….Wherever we were, we expressed our own experience through our music. She did, I did—she had to. And it gave her peace. It did! She comes off angry because she was angry, she was mad. But she was also happy and joyful. Nina Simone—and I want to clarify this for the whole world—Nina Simone was not an Angry Black Woman all the time. She was not. So whoever is reading this, it is very clear: that makes her sound like she was a mad woman. She was not mad at the world; she had issues like every Black woman had. Like every Black man had, but particularly Black women during those periods.
Did she accept the various psychiatric diagnoses she was given?
Jeff L. Lieberman: I don’t know if she accepted them or not. I know that she was very secretive about it and kept it under wraps … I sort of suggest bipolar disorder in the film based on one of the interviews, but other people disagree and say it could have been schizophrenia. I also heard interpretations of PTSD from experiences she might have suffered in the early 60s.
Sam Waymon: She lived in Hollywood, and I was staying there. I remember us going to the rooftop to go sunbathing. She loved to get brown; she loved to go to Africa; she loved the water. Up on the roof, she said to me, ‘Tell me about the family.’ She said that she wanted me there because I reminded her of her daddy. I saw that as an opportunity to ask her about herself. I said to her, ‘Why are you so extreme in your moodiness?’ Her bedroom was cold as ice. She kept it like that all the time. You would go in her room and you’d have to wear a coat. That had to do with her personality, that had something to do with her health issues. I say that simply because that led to a point—this conversation about California is leading me to answer your question. Here’s what happened: we were in Paris. We were in the limousine. She was completely going in one direction to the other, attacking—verbally another personality. She had multiple personalities. I knew them all, each and every one of them. This particular day, a couple members of the band were with me. I was the manager. I had to dismiss them all. ‘Get out of this car, let me call the police, let me call the doctors.’ She was totally out of control. One of her personalities had taken control. It sounded like a man. It was a deeper voice than I have. The guys were frightened; the driver was terrified. I think she’d taken an overdose of some medication. But she also had drank some Grand Marnier. I had to call the psychiatrist. We put her in the hospital. I dismissed everybody, closed down the tour. I had to stay with her. Most of the public doesn’t know what I’m about to say to you—they don’t know that this actually happened. I didn’t say this in the movie, but I’m saying it to you now. It has a happy ending. She knew something was wrong with her, and she kept saying, ‘I’m gonna kill you, I’m gonna kill you.’ She would curse like the devil. I said, ‘Nina, something is wrong with you.’ ‘I know, I know.’ She’d say things like, ‘What are you gonna do about it? You don’t care about me. You don’t love me. Everybody hates me.’ She’d go into this tirade. She knew something was wrong with her, but let me tell you: she knew something else too. She knew that if anybody could help her and cared about her, it was me. This time we had to put her in a straightjacket. She was diagnosed with multiple personalities. I sat beside her bed in the hospital every night, for about eight days or ten days. Multiple personalities, depression, addiction to pills, bipolar—which was not the name back then. Everybody’s bipolar today, but it wasn’t really discussed that much at that time. But my sister Nina, something was wrong with her.
Did she communicate it to you—what she thought was happening deep down?
Sam Waymon: A lot of people didn’t understand her and didn’t get to understand her. They missed a certain part of her, and what they missed comes from the song ‘Little Girl Blue.’ When we sat on that rooftop back in L.A., she said, ‘Sam, so many people misunderstand me. They don’t know that I’m just a little girl. I just want to be the little girl that I never was.’ She would say to me, ‘I didn’t have a chance to jump rope like little girls do, or have baby dolls or do the things that little girls do.’ And she didn’t.
Because she was at the piano all the time, sometimes practicing seven hours a day?
Sam Waymon: Yeah—she was being pushed toward her genius as a classical pianist. But this bothered her. And I would say to her, she would look at me, and we’d be layin’ up there in a chaise lounge by the pool, she’d say, ‘Do you know what I mean?’ I’d say, ‘Actually, I do.’ Because you know she and I performed together—so when she’s on the concert stage on her grand piano and I’m sitting at a Hammond organ facing her, we’re looking into each other’s eyes performing. And whenever she went into ‘Little Girl Blue,’ I flew into her eyes. She would be looking at me and crying. I knew exactly what she was talking about. But I knew something else: I wanted to protect that little girl. I loved my sister. I really did. I protected her … She said to me, ‘I just want to be a little girl.’ I said, ‘Is that why you sing ‘Little Girl Blue’ like that?’ and she said, ‘Yeah.’ So what would we do? We would be silly as heck. We’d play ball, we’d play jacks. She and I did all these crazy, silly things that she never did when she was a kid. I taught her how to play basketball a little bit up on that roof; I threw a football. She didn’t know how to throw a football. She wanted to know what it was like to do that …That was the frivolity. It wasn’t all depressing and bipolar. I tried to have fun.
She expressed a lot of disappointment in her later years at what she thought was the trailing off of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. When she said, ‘too slow!’ she meant it, and she didn’t play diplomat with it.
Jeff L. Lieberman: I think she really was disappointed. That’s a whole other area that people don’t even think about: what happens when you’re involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and suddenly major leadership is gone or dead? All the ideals have changed, and you’ve only really achieved half or a third of what you had hoped. She was one of the few people who were left at the end of 1969 who hadn’t gone commercial. She was commercial somewhat, but she was singing ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black.’ In 1969, that was her big song. Martin Luther King was gone, Malcolm X was gone, so many Black Panthers were jailed or killed. A lot of people had simply left America. There was a new generation of singers who were embracing disco and pop. I think she felt completely disenfranchised. She didn’t know who appreciated her or where to go or how to be.
And now she’s in the media lot, perpetually in television and commercials but also in John Legend’s Oscar speech, in people’s responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, and in the anger over the Hollywood biopic that cast Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone.
Sam Waymon: You wanna get me started? Now you’re touching on something that I am angry about as her brother, as her younger brother. This is no indictment of Zoe, because she’s a great actress. But this had to do with the fact that they cast a woman who has no features of Nina Simone, not even skin tone. Fake nose, fake lips, that’s an insult to my sister. She stood for truth. And fair play! And they had to falsify the story about someone who’s supposed to be truthful. It’s absolutely absurd. If you’re going to make a story about a Black icon, a female singer of protest and civil rights and all that, Nina Simone, why not get someone who closely resembles? And if you can’t find that, don’t make her up. Don’t give her body parts that are not real. Don’t do that! Isn’t that pathetic? Please. That’s flatly wrong, because this is history for us. It’s blasphemous.
Jeff L. Lieberman: With our film, we had a screening in Tyron on Nina’s birthday a few months ago … To be able to play the film, have a packed house, with friends and a standing ovation—with Nina’s statue across the street—it was very emotional. To go back and try to draw on and show those people their own story on the big screen and celebrate Tyron, the gift they gave the world. Nina Simone is the gift that came out of the town. That’s one of the nicest things so far to come from the film.
She wrote ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,’ and that’s a fight even now, over a decade since her death. What are other things you wish people understood about her?
Sam Waymon: I covered that a little bit when I said think of her as the little girl blue. Think of her as a little girl inside a grown woman; think of her as a person who was a sponge who soaked up the energy and life and times of the world that she lived in. We used to say to each other, ‘Where do you exist? You have a life in between the keys.’ The space between the keys is where she used to exist. And that’s good enough for me—like livin’ between the moon and the sun. That’s where she lived, that’s what she understood. She knew she was a prodigy. She didn’t like that word too much, but she knew she was different. She enjoyed what she did understand about herself. That song ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,’ that I sing now also in my concerts, that was part of her legacy. She was misunderstood. But at the same time, understand that Nina Simone was not crazy, she was not mad, she was a lady who tried to understand her womanhood, she tried to understand her Blackness the best way she could, and she figured that out through her music. That’s all. She wanted to lead the world. What she understood best was, ‘Hey, let me shake you up.’ She wanted to make people think. That’s why she would act a certain way—she would want you to walk away from her show wondering what did you just go through! ‘Damn, what just happened to me?’ She used to say, ‘I want people to feel my pain. I want people to feel my joy. I want them to travel someplace.’ Because every song she sang was not anger. She sang a lot of beautiful songs. Love—she wanted people to feel love and the power of love. What it is like to be loved and what is it like to love. I’d love for you to end on a happy, humble note about love. Not hate—nothing like that. Nina was about love, love of the world, love of life, love of her art. Very important. She appreciated her art, and if you really want to know how I feel about it, I have to tell you—you know I wrote that song called ‘A Brother’s Love’? In that lyric, it talks about her. It’s very important that they understand that’s where she was coming from. That’s how I saw her—that’s how the world sees her. Leave on a good note that Nina Simone was about love, life, the complexity of life, the complexity of love and all its benefits.
And honesty—you can’t get to love if you’re not honest about the pain, too.
Sam Waymon: Truth, truth. You have to be honest about it—she was not a liar. About anything. She told the truth how she felt it, The one thing you knew about Nina Simone—about Eunice Waymon—is that you ask her a question, you’re gonna get a Eunice Waymon answer. Whether you like it or not, that’s your problem. That’s one of the things I loved about her. You either took it or you didn’t. Some people hated Nina, but some people loved it. One thing you can’t do—you can’t ignore her.
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