Nina Simone Was a Radical

Nina Simone is often remembered for her involvement in the civil rights movement. She was also engaged with the radical political currents of her age, including socialism.

Nina Simone in December 1965. (Ron Kroon / Anefo)

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 To Be 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 thirty-four. 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 reenergize and rejoin the wider movement that often marginalizes 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 criticized 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 Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin as an example of the conversations 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 deradicalized 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 bit 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 that killed four young black girls aged between eleven and fourteen — Simone sings in “Mississippi Goddam”:

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 Carmichael, 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 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 racialized 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 organizations 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 in contextualizing 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 the song “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.