Composer of the Month – Nina Simone – Activism in Music

Music has great power to affect people both physically and emotionally. Music with a fast beat can get your heart rate up, you might want to listen to it when running to help you keep motivated in your run. Listening to dance music, with its infectious beat and rhythms might force you to move – you find your toes tapping or hips swaying along, you can’t help yourself. Listening to music together in a group can be a very bonding thing to do – you are sharing that experience together. The same with singing, adding your voice to a collective sound can be an empowering thing to do and give you a sense of belonging.

Photo by Alex Green on

Music is used to mark social occasions, from joyful occasions like singing Happy Birthday to a family member or friend on their birthday, to much more sad times, like singing together at a funeral. Schools use group singing in assemblies, churches ask you to stand to sing songs as part of a service of worship. Music is a very powerful form of expression. And of course with songs, there is also meaning behind the words that the song-writer has chosen to use. It is not surprising, then, that there is a long tradition throughout the world of protest songs being part of any protest movement.

What are protest songs?

A protest song is a song that has been written for, about, or in connection with a movement demanding social change. If you can think of a movement for social change – the labour movement, the suffrage, the civil rights movement, then there will be music written for that movement or about that movement. A protest song is one that will use the power of music to affect us physically and emotionally along with the explicit message of the words of the song – to affect our heartbeat, our desire to move in response to the music, to feel hair sticking up on the back of our neck, to feel tears well up in our eyes. As well as the bonding experience of listening to someone sing with a group of likeminded people, the sense of belonging you get from singing together with a group. Often the song will be sung by someone well known – the notoriety, fame or respect commanded by that person being leant to the message the song itself conveys.

When you hear the term “Protest Song” you may well think of artists like Bob Dylan with his song The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob Marley and his song Get Up Stand Up or even Joan Baez’s version of the traditional song We Shall Overcome, but Protest Songs are not limited to this genre or even this area of the world. All over there world people have used music, and song in particular to express their feelings about political movements, and even Classical composers have written their own songs in response to political movements. When Beethoven wrote his “Ode to Joy” he wrote it as an Ode to Brotherhood and the idea of European peace and unity. This piece of music has been used by many protest movements including being sung by demonstrators in Chile against Pinochet’s dictatorship, students in Tianamen Square broadcast the song during their demonstrations, it was sung at the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in the 2018 Proms season by there BBC Proms Youth Choir with Georg Solti’s UNESCO World Orchestra for Peace.

Martin Luther King once said about the freedom songs from the Civil Rights Movement:

The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our movement….They give the people a new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.

Nina Simone – the reluctant activist

Nina Simone became involved in the American Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. The Civil Rights movement was a movement demanding equal rights under the law for Black Americans. Initially Simone was very reluctant to use her music as a part of that movement, she did not know what she could add to the movement in just a short song. However there were a couple of events that changed this. In 1963 there was a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four Black girls who were just attending Sunday school. Earlier that same year civil rights leader Medgar Evers had been murdered outside his home. These events had Simone both heartbroken and absolutely furious, especially the killing of those innocent young girls. She was encouraged to channel her feelings into her music and the result was the song Mississippi Goddam. The song is an upbeat song with a tune that would not be out of place in a musical. But it is actually a song that talks about how slow progress was in tackling racial injustice in the United States and how Black people were still facing oppression, injustice and violence. The song was banned in a number of States especially across the South of America and some people publicly destroyed copies of the physical record. But the song also spoke to many African American people giving voice to their pain, anguish and frustration.

Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning. And until songs like “Mississippi Goddam” just burst out of me, I had musical problems as well. How can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune?…. But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with “Mississippi Goddam” I realised there was no turning back.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone continued to speak out about the struggles African American people faced to be given basic freedoms and justice throughout her life, and she became associated with the Black Nationalism and Black Power movements and she not only sang music with her usual fusion of musical styles but also sang political songs such as Backlash Blues written by her friend Langston Hughes, Billy Taylor’s song I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, and the song Why?(The King Of Love Is Dead) written by Gene Taylor in direct response to the news of the murder of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the mid 1960s Simone wrote a song, Four Women, which tells the story of four different African American women, each woman representing a different stereotype of Black woman. Simone’s intention in writing this song was to highlight the injustices faced by Black women in America and to challenge the ideas people had about Black women. Some people interpreted the song as being racist because it drew on those stereotypes and the song was banned on many major radio stations.

In 1969 Nina Simone released the song To Be Young, Gifted and Black which she wrote together with poet and musician Weldon Irvine, who wrote the lyrics to the song, in memory of her friend Lorraine Hansberry, the play writer, who had died at the age of just 34. Hansberry had been the first Black woman to have a play performed on Broadway. In writing the song she had wanted it to be a song to encourage young Black people to be confident in themselves and their abilities. She recognised that there were two sides to the movement, the one that called out injustice and demanded equal treatment, but also that Black people needed to feel able to express their pride and joy in being Black, in being themselves. And this is where the song To Be Young Gifted and Black came from.

When the Civil Rights movement itself became less and less prominent in the 1970s, Simone’s career lost momentum and she found herself in far less demand. She moved away from the United States and settled in France until her death in 2003. She continued to release albums and perform around the world until shortly before her death. She has been named as a hugely influential artist by a number of later musicians including artists like Aretha Franklin, and was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

Photo by Markus Spiske on

Next week I will post a suggested playlist giving you an introduction to some of Nina Simone’s music, so be sure to come back then to check out that playlist.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog post, thank you. I am always looking for ideas for the blog, so would love to hear from you with suggestions for topics you would like me to cover in the future. Also, if you would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, buying the books to review here, and supplies to make the DIY instruments, for example, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!


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