Born to a Christian family on February 21st, 1933; Nina was the sixth child to a North Carolina preacher, Mary Kate Waymon and Handyman, John Divine Waymon.
Her early aspiration was to become a concert pianist, which lead her to audition at Curtis Institiute of Music in Philadelphia. She was rejected; a decision she felt was based on her Race.
Taking up studies in Music at Juilliard School in New York would be expensive and Nina took a job playing as a pianist at Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City. However, despite the knowledge that her studies could not be funded by her parents, she also knew that her parents would not approve of playing ‘the Devils music’, and thus she adopted the name Nina Simone in 1951.
Inspired by the names of “Nina” (from niña, meaning ‘little girl’ in Spanish), and “Simone” -taken from the French actress Simone Signoret, whom she had seen in the movie Casque d’or, Nina Simone would remain undetected by her parents as she rose to fame.
Simone’s inspiration to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s is due to an incident at her first ‘concert’ at the age of 12. Here, her parents were moved to the back of the Church theatre in order to make space for White People. Angered that her parents may miss her recital based on Race, Nina refused to perform until her parents were reinstated at the front of the theatre.
Simone had always included songs in her repertoire that drew upon her African-American origins (such as “Brown Baby” and “Zungo” on Nina at the Village Gate (1962). On her 1964 album Nina Simone in Concert, however, Simone for the first time openly addressed the racial inequality that was prevalent in the United States with the song “Mississippi Goddam”, her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham Church Bombing. The song was released as a single, and it was boycotted in certain southern states.
From then on, a Civil Rights message was standard in Simone’s recording repertoire, becoming a part of her live performances. Simone performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings, such as at the Selma to Montgomery marches. Simone advocated violent revolution during the civil rights period, rather than Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach, hoping that African Americans could, by armed combat, form a separate state. Nevertheless, she wrote in her autobiography that she and her family regarded all races as equal.
Together with Weldon Irvine, Simone turned the late Lorraine Hansberry’s unfinished play To Be Young, Gifted and Black into a Civil Rights song. Hansberry had been a personal friend whom Simone credited with cultivating her social and political consciousness. She performed the song live on the album Black Gold (1970).
Simone left the US in September 1970, flying to Barbados. A close friend, singer Miriam Makeba, then persuaded her to go to Liberia. Later, she lived in Switzerland and the Netherlands, before settling in France in 1992.