The documentary The Amazing Nina Simone, by filmmaker Jeff L. Lieberman, provides an intimate look at the life of singer Nina Simone, who combined art with activism. Often called the voice of the civil rights movement, Simone made songs, including “Mississippi Goddam,” that spoke to the turbulence of the time and the brutal fight for civil rights. More than 50 years later, her music has become the soundtrack of today’s social-justice activists who play Simone’s songs at protests and rallies.
Poet Nikki Giovanni was close friends with Simone, and she described her as one of America’s greatest artists. During a recent stop in the nation’s capital for the March on Washington Film Festival, Giovanni read from the illustrated book The Genie in the Jar. Giovanni sat down with The Root to talk about her friend’s legacy and why the singer’s music is so relevant today.
The Root: Talk about how you met Nina Simone.
Nikki Giovanni: It was Michaux's bookstore, on the corner of 125th and Seventh [in Harlem]. That bookstore was so important. Nina happened to be there and I happened to be there. I mean, it was really a happenstance, but I thought, "Well, if you don't ask." My mother was coming up to visit. I invited [Nina] to my home, which was a two-bedroom apartment. I lived there with my son. She came. Her response was to invite me back because I thanked her. She lived upstate. She said I should come up. "Well, yeah. I'm happy to come up." Then I went up.
TR: As a friend, how would you describe Nina Simone?
NG: I just think she was a wonderful woman. What I think of when I think of Nina is someone that I could relate to, who didn't want anything from me, that could relate to me because I didn't want anything from her. It was nice. Sometimes we'd go up and we'd fry chicken or something. I wrote the poem “Genie in a Jar.”
I wish that she had had a black loon because I don't think that Nina did. I have always had—I've been very fortunate—a group of little old ladies that I love and who love me, and who turned and to whom I turn at different times. I don't think that she had a black loon, so I think that left her alone. I think that too many strangers were in her life, and not enough people that she knew and loved.
TR: How would you describe her music?
NG: Her music is incredible. “Little Girl Blue” is really one of my favorites, and it's because we've got that mixture going. I don't play the piano. I don't have any talent. I'm just a little girl standing on a corner, but the way that she could mix these things in and the way that she could bring them out.
I prefer her jazz period much more so than her folk period. I knew Stokely [Carmichael] and them, but when you got to that, you saw that she started to take up their burden. She started to preach for them. She was taking on the burden of "I want to tell the people."
TR: Why does her music resonate with young black activists today?
NG: Because her music is incredibly honest. That's like saying, "Why does Jesus' word still stay around?" It's incredibly honest and it's good. I was responding to one thing for the woman I knew, and there's another thing for what did she give, right. She was a great teacher.
TR: What do you miss most about her?
NG: I miss our quiet. I used to go up to her house. She lived upstate [in New York] and I lived in Manhattan; you're living in a lot of noise and my career was being built. For me to spend time with Nina is to spend a lot of quiet time. We just didn't put any pressure on each other, and I think that everybody needs somebody, and I didn't do it to try to do it; it's what we were to each other.
TR: What is her lasting legacy?
NG: I think it's the strength of her music, using art to make a statement. I think it really is. It was not a cheap gift. The gift was an expensive gift for Nina. Diamonds are expensive. Her music was expensive. She paid for it, but I think it's her greatest gift.
TR: What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement?
NG: I am of the generation of segregation. Black Lives Matter is post. I said today, and I will say all the time, "If Nina were here, she'd have her Black Lives Matter [T-shirt] on.” I think they're great kids. They don't need me or anybody else to tell them what to do. I like what they're doing. I think they're doing a good job, and I know that a lot of people are upset by them. These are great young men and women, and they're bold, and they are saying to America, "Something's going to change." I'm very proud of them.
Lottie L. Joiner is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.