The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering

Tim Flight - September 16, 2019

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
The Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow, civil rights activist, Prime Minister of Barbados, and Nina’s lover, pictured with Eric Williams. Hansib

9. In Barbados, Nina had a love affair with Errol Barrow, the prime minister

Taking her daughter, Lisa, with her, Nina spent a period of time in Barbados, initially on vacation, but then returned a few years later and started an affair with the Prime Minister, Errol Barrow. Barrow is a much-revered national hero in Barbados, and during his term as the island’s first Prime Minister he achieved independence from Britain, introduced free education, improved healthcare, and oversaw a period of economic growth. He was also a passionate advocate of civil rights, and so it is no surprise that the two hit it off. Lisa remembers Barrow as her favourite of Nina’s boyfriends.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina attends a birthday party in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1974. Guernica

8. With an arrest warrant issued for her arrest over unpaid taxes, Nina could not return to the US

One of the reasons that Nina returned to live in Barbados after her initial vacation ended was because the US government issued an arrest warrant for her over the unpaid taxes. Nina’s refusal to pay taxes had been a political protest, and she hadn’t softened her stance on Vietnam. Instead, she left the US for good (periodically returning to play shows in later life), and after her affair with Errol Barrow ended Nina lived in Liberia for three years, then various places in Europe before settling near Aix-en-Provence in the South of France in 1993.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina and Lisa, late 1960s or early 1970s. Irish Mirror

7. Her relationship with her only daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud, was strained and, at times, abusive

The tumult of Nina’s life started to show in her private life after she left the US. Although her daughter, Lisa, eventually joined her in Liberia, Nina was so cruel to her that she was soon on a plane back to New York to live with her father, aged just 14. ‘She [Nina] went from being my comfort to the monster in my life’, Lisa reflected in a 2015 interview. ‘My mother was angry with the world and often the only person around to blame was me’. Their relationship was so bad that Nina left Lisa out of her will.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Johann Sebastian Bach, Nina’s favourite composer, depicted by E. G. Haussmann in 1748. Times of Israel

6. Despite never fulfilling her dream of becoming a concert pianist, Nina’s original songs were heavily influenced by classical composers

Although she is primarily known as a jazz pianist and singer, classical music aficionados can tell from many songs that Nina was classically trained. Many of her reinterpretations add flourishes more commonly seen in the fugues of her favourite composer, Johan Sebastian Bach. Her original compositions are even more telling of Nina’s background and desire to be a classical pianist, and no matter how famous she became she always saw herself as a classical pianist playing popular music out of necessity. ‘Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music,’ she once explained.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina, c.1997. Blogspot

5. She battled with a nasty pill-addiction during the height of her fame

As well as her own exacting standards, Nina’s punishing touring schedule – forced upon her by Andy Stroud, you’ll be unsurprised to hear – proved a heavy toll on her wellbeing. Anyone who has seen Nina perform with characteristic swagger will be shocked to hear that she often suffered from nerves before shows, which were made much worse by fatigue and the fear of not living up to her own standards, and so Nina became addicted to prescription pills during her 1960s heyday. She also became dependent on alcohol, though strenuously denied that she was ever an alcoholic.

 

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina, pictured here in the late 1960s, was a famously-heavy smoker. Project Revolver

4. Nina was famously belligerent, stubborn, and artistically-tempered

At concerts, Nina not only had high standards for herself but expected her audience to behave in a manner she deemed acceptable. After growing up playing classical recitals, Nina refused to tolerate anyone talking or not showing adequate attention at her shows, and would often stop playing to berate them or give them one of her trademark thousand-yard stares. Off-stage, too, Nina was uncompromising. She once fired buckshot over a neighbour’s garden to make their teenage kids quieten down. Nina’s mental illnesses, which only came to light after her death, explain her more violent episodes.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Nina performing in her adopted homeland, France, in May 1982. Wikimedia Commons

3. Nina suffered from mental illness, and wasn’t diagnosed until the 1980s

Like many other talented people, Nina suffered from bipolar disorder. This explains much of her erratic behaviour onstage and her treatment of Lisa, but sadly she was not diagnosed until the mid-1980s. She also likely had PTSD from her abusive second marriage. Nina lived for years with these conditions, completely un-medicated and untreated, and it was only after her death in 2003 that they came to light. Her fits of anger were misogynistically ascribed to her being a ‘diva’ during her life, but it is sad to note that many of Nina’s symptoms still define what makes a diva today.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
An 8-foot high statue of Nina at the Plaza named after her in Tryon, NC. Blogspot

2. In 2003, Nina died peacefully in her sleep after losing a battle with breast cancer

Nina’s career plummeted to the point that she once again played at bars and cafes (this time in Paris) for low sums of money. However, her career was reinvigorated in the 1980s after she received mental health treatment and began performing at bigger venues. Her role in the Civil Rights movement also won the great respect it deserved and her back catalogue was reassessed and finally won critical acclaim. In the late 1990s, however, Nina was struck down with breast cancer, and after a battle lasting a few years she died two months after her 70th birthday in 2003.

The Extraordinary Life of Nina Simone was Tragic and Empowering
Films such as this 2015 documentary are ensuring a new generation are exposed to Nina’s music. IMDB

1. Her posthumous reputation is stronger than ever

Nina’s ashes were scattered in several African countries, but as is often the case with celebrity deaths, this ending was a beginning. For Nina is now more popular than ever, with all manner of musicians paying homage to her music and the more controversial episodes in her life being re-examined. Numerous biographies have been written about her and her amazing story has recently been immortalised in film. In 2015, two documentaries were released about Nina’s life, What Happened, Miss Simone? and The Amazing Nina Simone, and the following year a biopic entitled Nina starring Zoe Saldana was also released.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Chandler, Adam. “What Happened to Nina Simone?”. The Atlantic, June 27, 2015.

Cohodas, Nadine. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Keepnews, Peter. “Nina Simone, 70, Soulful Diva and Voice of Civil Rights, Dies”. The New York Times, April 22, 2003.

Light, Alan. What Happened, Miss Simone? A Biography. New York: Random House, 2016.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone Turned the Movement into Music”. The New Yorker, August 3, 2014.

Simone, Nina, and Stephen Cleary. I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone. London: Penguin, 2003.

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