Equal parts beauty and bloodshed, the tapestry of American history is inextricably complex but from its very onset, music has played a prolific role in the liberation of marginalized peoples. From hymns to platinum hits, music in its most purest form is a medium of activism rooted in camaraderie, storytelling and the poetic reclamation of cultural identity. In commemoration of Juneteenth, an American holiday which marks the anniversary of slavery's total abolishment on June 16, 1865, we celebrate a profound lineage of artists and activists of color through the lens of the high priestess of soul herself, Nina Simone who once said, “You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” A time-honored voice for the sounds and sentiments of civil rights activism, we turn our attention to the the truly incomparable Simone whose hopeful words ring poignant as ever in the ongoing struggle for socio-political freedom and equality.
“I’ll tell you what Freedom is to me. No fear.”
"As a political weapon, it has helped me for 30 years defend the rights of American blacks and third-world people all over the world, to defend them with protest songs. To move the audience to make them conscious of what has been done to my people around the world."
"There's no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were."
“Life is short. People are not easy to know. They’re not easy to know, so if you don’t tell them how you feel, you’re not going to get anywhere, I feel.”
"To be young, gifted and black,
Oh what a lovely precious dream
To be young, gifted and black,
Open your heart to what I mean..."
"What I was interested in was conveying an emotional message, which means using everything you've got inside you sometimes to barely make a note, or if you have to strain to sing, you sing."
"At this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don't think you can help but be involved."
“I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world.”
"I had spent many years pursuing excellence, because that is what classical music is all about... Now it was dedicated to freedom, and that was far more important."
“What kept me sane was knowing that things would change, and it was a question of keeping myself together until they did.”
"I think the rich will eventually have to cave in, too, because the economic situation around the world is not gonna tolerate the United States being on top forever."
"The protest years were over, not just for me but for a whole generation, and in music, just like in politics, many of the greatest talents were dead or in exile, and their place was filled by third-rate imitators."
“I’ve never changed. I’ve never changed my hair. I’ve never changed my color. I have always been proud of myself, and my fans are proud of me for remaining the way I’ve always been.”
“You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served.”
"I think that the artists who don't get involved in preaching messages probably are happier—but you see, I have to live with Nina, and that is very difficult."
Photo: Barrie Wentzell, Nina Simone, 1969