“In “Mississippi Goddam,” a show tune turned protest song — an elegy to Medgar Evers and the four little girls killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham — Simone warned America: “Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We all gonna get it in due time / I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.”
As she desegregated sound, she also fought for the end of second-class citizenship for African-Americans by headlining civil rights fundraisers and going down South to join the famous Selma to Montgomery Marches in 1965. Her sonic radicalism not only modeled her virtuosity and musical dexterity, but also was the blueprint of her social ideal.
In the forward to the paperback edition ofI Put A Spell On You, the singer’s 1992 memoir, rock music critic Dave Marsh reflects ‘Simone made art about wanting to live like a free person. This certainly didn’t mean to live — or sing — like a white person or for that matter, an American. It meant living and singing like a person who not only counted on the promise but lived in the actuality of the American dream.’
Her music, as alluring and open as democracy itself, reconciled the divisions between artist and activist, protestor and patriot, and African-American citizens and their country. Living in exile for the rest of her life, Simone never found full freedom here in the United States. It was on stage and in sound that she bridged our chasm between America’s promise and its racial reality.”
I remember seeing a dance performance to “Feelin’ Good” in high school and just playing that track over and over again while driving around suburban New Jersey with a good friend, falling into the divide where Simone’s “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me… and I’m feelin’ good,” is met with that heavy brass that makes your knees shake. I’ll admit it took me a while to realize that the glory of Simone goes way beyond that over-used (but still, I insist, incredible) song.
But I’ve been learning more about Simone’s story and her activism during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and why she chose to leave this country (primarily from the book I’ve quoted here a couple times over the past few weeks, Audiotopia by Josh Kun). I highlighted some of the parts of this article that speak to the idea of using sound to deconstruct the everyday divisions of American life and hopefully allow the listener to hear sound independently of all that’s attached to it… and then maybe re-attach the context and view things differently.
Music exists in a certain time and place, and hopefully encapsulates what’s going on right there and then so generations down the road can hear it and learn from it. Simone’s music reached, and continues to reach outside the boundaries that kept her from feeling free and fearless… and as we keep trying to break down those boundaries altogether - whatever the boundaries you may face are - it’s important to value music that helps that struggle. We don’t want to erase our differences, we want to be our differences fearlessly.
Simone’s definition of freedom, as quoted in this article here:
The question posed: “What does freedom mean to you?” She starts off causally and impersonally and in a split second turns dead serious, she confesses, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me — no fear! … If I could have that half my life, no fear.” She goes on: “It is something really, really to feel — like a new way of seeing.”