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Black History Month: Nina Simone's first protest song

Nina Simone
Verve Records
Nina Simone

When Nina Simone had finally had enough, she wrote her first protest song in 1963.

Reeling from the news of the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls in Birmingham, Ala., Nina Simone marked 1963 as the year of her first protest song.

Simone had encountered her own struggles with racism. She had intended to study classical piano and become a concert performer, but the conservatory to which she applied denied her entrance once they realized that she was Black. 

And, of course, she was subject to all the indignities that faced Black entertainers as they traveled to perform throughout the United States. 

“Mississippi Goddam,” her first protest song, referenced the horrifying events in Mississippi, Alabama and other Southern states that resisted desegregation, fairness and equality. Over time, Simone would add to the lyrics for each act of violence and oppression throughout the country, including Selma, St. Augustine, Watts and Memphis.

The song also had a slightly more subtle line: "Yes, you lied to me all these years; you told me to wash and clean my ears and talk real fine just like a lady, and you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie."

Sister Sadie was a character in Mark Twain's book "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Sadie, the wife of a runaway slave, was a cook and a healer -- a stereotypical strong Black woman who kept her pain, anger and frustration to herself and didn’t talk back.

Simone would never be a Sister Sadie.

She would write and perform other songs of protest, including "Old Jim Crow," "Four Women," and "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)," composed shortly after the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Of her protest songs, she remarked, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times,” and also, “When I go, I’m going to know that I left something for my people to build on. That is my reward.” 

Celebrating Nina Simone and her protest music for Black History Month.  

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.