Nina Simone, a singer, composer, and pianist who made racism a central theme in her work, died yesterday at age 70 at her home in France. “That’s what separated Nina from the other singers,” said George Wein, a friend and jazz concert promoter, according to the Associated Press. “Nina took civil rights and the movement, the fight to another level, and made it part of her persona.”
Simone wrote and recorded “Mississippi Goddam” as an angry response to killing of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the deaths of four girls in a Birmingham church in 1963, according to the New York Times. Other songs that brought together her talent and her social consciousness included “Four Women,” a tribute to the suffering and strength of African-American women, and “Young, Gifted and Black,” which was later covered by Aretha Franklin.
A classically trained pianist, Simone studied for a year at Julliard. She tried to attend the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, but was denied; Simone attributed the rejection to racism, AP reports. After years of success that ended in financial problems, she left the country in 1973, finally settling in France. Simone said that racism factored into her decision to live abroad, saying that as an African-American, she “paid a heavy price for fighting the establishment,” according to AP. An all-star tribute to Nina Simone, produced by the Black Rock Coalition and planned before her death, will take place in June at Symphony Space in New York.