A new mural on W. Trade Street in Charlotte portrays eight Black musicians from North Carolina, including the bisexual “High Priestess of Soul” Nina Simone. The project by Charlotte artist Tafo (a.k.a. Tony Feimster) and Abel Jackson is entitled “NC 8” and is supported by the Historic West End and the NoDa Neighborhood Association.
The mural is one of many projects in the state honoring the life of Tryon, N.C. native Simone, born Eunice Waymon.
Artist Scott Nurkin revealed his own mural of Simone in Tryon this past November as part of the North Carolina Musician Murals Project. In a post on his Facebook page Nurkin said “[Simone] is one of North Carolina’s greatest treasures and inarguably one of the finest musicians of all time.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is working to preserve Simone’s childhood home. The three-room, 660-square foot clapboard house is now protected by a preservation easement after four Black visual artists purchased the property in 2017. After prior rehabilitation efforts had been unsuccessful, Adam Pendleton, Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher and Julie Mehretu bought the home for $95,000.
Now those artists are providing guidance to the National Trust, in partnership with the Eunice Waymon-Nina Simone Memorial Project, World Monuments Fund and North Carolina African American Heritage Commission to preserve the house and identify future uses of the property.
An upright piano sits in the main room and from the front porch you can see St. Luke’s. C.M.E. Church, where Simone played as a young child accompanying the church choir. It is where she taught herself to play the piano at age 3 and helped inspire some of her most influential music and political activism.
That childhood in the Jim Crow South provided inspiration for such songs as “Mississippi Goddam,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” and “Four Women.”
You’ve Got to Learn
The lyrics of Simone’s “You’ve Got to Learn” are about walking away from the people, places, and things that no longer serve you.
“You’ve got to learn to leave the table
When love’s no longer being served
To show everybody that you’re able
To leave without saying a word.”
— Nina Simone
Not surprisingly, the relationship between Simone and the city of Tryon has been a difficult one. Some in the town felt that Simone betrayed them and while Simone often spoke kindly of her birthplace, she also vividly remembered the racism of the South in which she grew up.
Today, the small Tryon Historical Museum tucked away in the city’s downtown has a prominent exhibit of the musician’s life. The collection includes concert posters, photographs, and a framed proclamation from the U.S. House of Representatives celebrating what would have been Simone’s 77th birthday and her “accomplishments as both an extraordinary jazz musician and strong civil rights activist.”
One display case includes a “notice” of the young “noted pianist” at St. Luke’s extending an invitation to “colored people and our white friends too.” Simone often recalled a recital at the local library when she was eleven and her parents were removed from the front row to make room for a white couple. She refused to play unless her parents were able to return to their seats. She says that after the concert she remembered feeling that she “had been flayed, and every slight, real or imagined, cut me raw. But the skin grew back a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black.”
Simone did find support in the community of Tryon, however. Mrs. Muriel Mazzanovich heard the young Simone playing the piano at the age of six while she accompanied her mother’s community choir. She quickly recognized her talents and offered to teach her, introducing Simone to the basics of classical music and most notably the music of Bach. She even helped organize the Eunice Waymon Fund which raised money for Simone to continue her training at an all-girls boarding school in Asheville. Following graduation, Simone moved to New York City in 1950 to attend a summer program at Julliard.
Today, a bronze statue of Simone with a floating keyboard is the central point of the Nina Simone Plaza in downtown. Close by is a large backlit photo of the young Simone sitting on a stone wall in the town. Across the street, squeezed between two buildings, will be the future site of the Nina Simone Archive.
Feminist writer Germaine Greer wrote, “Every generation has to discover Nina Simone. She is evidence that female genius is real.”
While never coming out as openly bisexual, “Simone was rumored to have relationships with women, and wrote of her attraction to both genders in her diary,” according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
Her music continues to resonate and empower people today. Her voice and lyrics live with you. They take root in your soul and once you start listening, you can almost guarantee that you’ll be listening for life. She has become an iconic symbol of strength and talent for women, the Black community and the LGBTQ community.
“While she led a troubled life, it is foolish to deny Simone’s musical brilliance,” says Bi.org writer Jennie Roberson. ”And it’s important to make sure in the narratives we tell about her that we include her whole truth; that she was flawed, but brilliant — and undeniably bi.”
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