Biographical Poetry posted April 14, 2024

This work has reached the exceptional level
Young, Gifted and Black

Nina Simone

by Debbie D'Arcy

A prodigy with Stars aligned, at three, intent was clear -
her love for the piano, already played by ear.
And this was Nina's Choice, a skill that magnified, impressed,
infusing Church and home, delighting parents she was Blessed.
But racism at twelve years old would fire her up with rage
and at her debut concert she refused to take the stage
until her parents were allowed their rightful place returned,
no longer stood in Solitude but in a seat they earned.
In poverty and humble roots, her path ahead was sheer,
but charity and faith would lift and beckon her to steer
ambition to fulfil her dreams, resisting holding back,
to celebrate her artistry, so Gifted, Young and Black.
Aspiring to prestigious heights, her quest would sadly teach
that this Forbidden Fruit hung high and far too out of reach.
For, though her Spell was unsurpassed, she found it Cold Out Here,
identity a barrier, ingrained with hateful smear.
This final blow would mark the end, a time to Turn, Turn, Turn,
immersed in her reality, injustice now would burn
and, thwarted in her vision of a concert pianist,
her Compensation was her voice, a conduit for her fist!
Inspired by Billie Holiday* she spun her special style,
she'd sing in bars enough to earn her study For A While.
And Backlash Blues attracted soon a following anew,
her fragile hurt would resonate: Do What You Gotta Do.
And, as the Sixties bid to all that Ev'rything Must Change,
her call would reinforce King's* plea, belief within our range.
But bitter fruit* incensed her so, her protest soared with might:
in Mississippi Goddam, she armed music in her fight!
Frustrated as an activist when change seemed far away,
yet strengthened by her Cherished faith that hope would not delay,
in raw, emotive words she'd sing in praise to grow and thrive;
her Take Me to the Water voiced her yearning to revive.
As mental illness plagued her soul with instability
she battled on regardless in her rough and stormy sea.
Impassioned on her journey, she exalted Feeling Good
would be the gift of all of us when peace was understood.
Her music crossed all Images, inclusive, undefined,
as too her prized equality, to leave the past behind.
And, fighting her own demons, 'gainst her tantrums and her strife,
she sang that we Aint Got No (thing) without embracing life. 



Image: courtesy of Google free pics. Information source: Wikipedia and other biographical sources.
Song titles have been used for the poetic purpose of the biography and may not necessarily accord with the context of the songs or the period. They may also be slightly amended, or shortened to accommodate the meter, or even hinted at in one word:) Dates in brackets refer to original release. Many thanks for your kind understanding.

Stanza 1: Stars (1976); Nina's Choice (1963 compilation album); I am Blessed (1964)
Born 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, Eunice Kathleen Waymon (changing her name at the start of her singing career). Her mother, a strict Methodist preacher and her father, a handyman and also preacher, couldn't ignore her God-given gift, which led in turn to an early introduction to classical composers.

Stanza 2: Solitude (1962) It was this incident of segregation that triggered for this young girl, described as a quite precocious child, later immersion into the Civil Rights Movement.

Stanza 3: Young Gifted and Black (1970)
Her large family was very poor and it took her music teacher to help set up a fund for her and then local sources to enable her to enrol in the Juilliard School of Music in NYC.

Stanza 4: Forbidden Fruit (1961); I Put a Spell on You (1965) Cold Out Here (1989)
Her study was carefully curated to prepare her for entrance to the Curtis Institute of Philadelphia. However, although she passed the audition, she was denied acceptance for reasons she always maintained were racist. This would have set her on a path to be the first African American professional concert pianist.

Stanza 5: Turn, Turn, Turn (1969); Compensation (1969)
Her world had been turned upside-down and, from this point, her career path was forever changed and, with it, a resolution to weaponise her music.

Stanza 6: For A While (1985); Backlash Blues (1967 album Nina Sings the Blues); Do What You Gotta Do (1968)
* Billie Holliday - the quintessential jazz singer with her characteristic laconic style.
In order to fund private lessons, she performed in a bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey where it was requirement that she sing as well as play.
Do What You Gotta Do and Backlash Blues - resonated with the civil rights movement as well as the feminist movement.

Stanza 7: Everything Must Change ( 1978) Mississippi Goddam (1963)
* Martin Luther King Jnr (civil rights leader); * Bitter Fruit (the disintegration of a multi-racial family following the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1998 (in a novel by Achmat Dangor)
Missippi Goddam - Simone's protest inspired by a bloody Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Four young Black girls died that day and a fifth was blinded in a white supremacist terror attack, later known as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. In the song she also laments other acts of violence and oppression in the segregated South. Her music was boycotted in some of those southern states and her popularity was severely affected generally.

Stanza 8: Cherish Feeling Good (1966); Take Me to the Water (1967)
She struggled with her own guilt and purpose. The song takes the listener on her spiritual journey seeking renewal and redemption.

Stanza 9: Feeling Good (1965 album I Put a Spell on You)
Diagnosed in the sixties with bi-polar disease, her behaviour became increasing volatile, especially when she didn't take her medication (friends would have to mix it into her food). In extreme bouts of anger, she was known to threaten and use violence. Fighting for civil rights became an all-consuming obsession, even overtaking her passion for music.

Stanza 10: Images (1966); Aint Got No...I Got Life (1968)
Her early experiences as a classical pianist, conditioned her to expect audiences to be quiet and attentive. When that didn't happen, for example in nightclubs, she could become very unpredictable, her performances ranging from hypnotic brilliance to mediocre or simply storming off stage.
She resisted the idea of her music - which covered classic, jazz, blues, folk, pop - being defined but, latterly, considered herself more of a folk singer.
Her message in much of her song list was about embracing love and life.

She died in her sleep in 2003 after several years of suffering from breast cancer. She had relocated to Southern France. From her second marriage to her manager, Andrew Stroud, that ended after 10 years in 1971, she had one (surviving) daughter, Lisa Simone.

One of the most extraordinary artists of the 20th century, she was the consummate story-teller who used her remarkable talent to create a legacy of legacy, empowerment, passion and love through her magnificent body of works. Earning the moniker High Priestess of Soul, she could weave a spell so seductive and hypnotic that the listener lost all sense of time and space. Her tremendous legacy lives on.

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