"I'm a real rebel with a cause."--Nina Simone
For too long I've taken Nina Simone for granted. It didn't hit me how prolific she really was until I realized how often and how much of her work has been covered and many times appropriated. It hit me when I tuned into my Nina Simone Pandora station and heard her perform her own work and I found myself saying, "Oh, she was the one who originally wrote that? I didn't know that was her."
I'm embarrassed to admit that.
But I still didn't know enough, really. I read about her and how tumultuous her life was but I still didn't really know or understand her. Thank god for the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? that I really began to get an inkling of her depth and complexity, how much she raged to just be, even when mental illness made it unbearable to her and those that were around her.
Like Ida B. Wells, she was a bad-ass from an early age. One of my favorite anecdotes about her was when she was a young girl in North Carolina and was about to perform an piano recital in front of a segregated audience. When young Nina realized that her parents would be pushed to the back of the audience because they were black, she refused to play until they were brought up front. It might seem like a small gesture to some but to me that is pretty ballsy for a young child to be willing to defy such injustice, seemingly without fear. That a child was so unaware of such injustice at a young age is also remarkable.
It seems say that her gift was salvation from the temptation of deadly rage in the face of anti-black hatred of the 50's, 60's, and 70's. It has to be soul-wrenching to be a witness to such unrelenting ugliness but yet still feel deeply satisfying to write something as blatant as "Mississippi Goddamn" to bluntly express the rage that so many black people feel after the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that took the lives of those four precious little girls. Nowadays, I feel myself humming that song whenever I hear about another deadly episode of policy brutality, the neglect of a mostly Black town, another senseless killing of the innocent.
I believe it takes superhero strength to be able to channel that anger, survive an abusive marriage, the music industry all the while battling with mental illness for the majority of her life. Most people would have ended themselves long ago but Nina somehow persevered even when she seemed to becoming undone. I am grateful that her struggle with this illness has come to light in that highlights the importance of protecting and attending the mental health of black women.
When making this portrait, I wanted to use an Inkscape that reflected Nina's passion, and fearlessness, hence the red tones. I liked the idea of reflecting the expansiveness of her talent by adding interstellar images in her profile. The contrast of red and black tones speaks to her own complexities, her layers upon layers.
I am grateful that there is a world where Nina Simone existed, and still endures through her music.