7 Life Lessons We Can Learn From the New Nina Simone Documentary

by Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn

Nina Simone has been called the “patron saint” of the 1960s civil rights activism. She was “black before it was fashionable to be black,” Gil Scott-Heron once told Wax Poetics Magazine; an artist and activist; a woman “not at odds with the times,” said Attallah Shabazz. “The times were at odds with her.”

She was a wife, a mother, and diagnosed bipolar. She was beloved, reviled, and sorely misunderstood.

Yet, while the musical icon was so many things, there are seven takeaways from the daring 20th century chanteuse we can learn when watching What Happened Miss Simone?, which premiered on Netflix Friday, June 26th.

1. Know Your Voice

Although being a singer wasn’t “any big thing” to Simone when she first started, she learned to recognize the seductive, spellbinding qualities of her androgynous tones. “Sometimes I sound like gravel,” she says in the film, “sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.” And when she discovered people loved her singing, she used it to stir things up, and found her calling. Finding one’s voice isn’t only about vocal abilities; it’s also an understanding of those innate talents and passions that give our lives meaning. To identify your purpose, Stephen R. Covey, best-selling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says you must ask yourself: (1) What am I good at? (2) What do I love? (3) What need can I serve? and (4) What gives my life meaning? Don’t expect the answers all at once, or the results to manifest themselves. As a girl, Simone once dreamed of becoming the first African American classical pianist. Ultimately, her voice made her a legend worldwide.

2. It’s Okay to Be Angry

Yeah, the whole “angry black woman” thing is a tired rep for sure. Still, there’s no denying that there’s plenty to get riled up about these days, what with the mass shooting of black people in church, the assault of young black teens at a pool party by police, and the overwhelming string of police shootings of unarmed black women and men throughout the country. Simone used her music to express her rage over human injustice with songs like “The Backlash Blues” and “Mississippi Goddamn.” “It took a woman,” activist Dick Gregory says in the film. “Not one black man would say, ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ even though we all wanted to say it.” The fervor of black women has galvanized every mass civil action in the United States from the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights Movement, the 1964 March on Washington to the Black Panther Party, and we’re now propelling such grassroots campaigns as Millions March NYC and Black Lives Matter. Like Simone, we can channel our anger and frustration into creative activism to promote positive change in our communities, and around the world.

3. Embrace Your Blackness

Before James Brown was black and proud, or Proctor & Gamble proclaimed our black is beautiful, being “Young, Gifted, and Black” was the anthem of black college students across the United States who connected with Simone’s anthem of black pride. This is beyond skin deep. Rather, it’s an affirmation of, and connectedness to, our African heritage – and to each other. “To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the world – black people,” Simone says. “But we don’t know where we come from. We’re like a lost race.” And it seems as if today race issues have gotten worse, not better. But we don’t need to look to others for help. Simone built friendships and alliances with the likes of Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael. We can empower ourselves and our communities through supporting and encouraging the achievements and successes of our youth (never tell a black child what she can’t do, but help bolster her dreams); being accountable to one another (you are you sister’s keeper); and understanding our worth (support black businesses that need and appreciate your patronage – it helps our communities grow). Loving blackness is beyond physical beauty (granted, we know we’ve got a lot of that). It’s an inside-out kind of thing. The more love we have for ourselves, the more we have to give to others in our communities who need it.

4. Know When to Let Go

Andrew Stroud loved him some Nina. He was her husband and manager for 10 years, and the father of Simone’s only child, Lisa. While he helped catapult her career, over their years together Stroud was violent and abusive. Simone wrote often in her diaries that Stroud was the “best manager” and a “bully,” noting once that, in a jealous rage, he beat her, put a gun to her head, tied her up and raped her. “I think they were both nuts,” Lisa says in the film, “but she had a love affair with fire.” Leaving a violent or abusive relationship isn’t always easy. And yet help is out there for you to break free. Every woman deserves to live without fear. It’s what Nina wanted for herself. (She finally left her husband in 1971.) When asked in 1968 to define what freedom was to her, she said: “I'll tell you what freedom is to me — no fear! I mean, really, no fear! If I could have that half my life – no fear."

5. Learn to Live With Yourself

“I have to live with Nina, and sometimes that’s very difficult,” Simone says of herself in the film. She had a reputation for volatile mood swings and bad behavior that became as much a part of her legend as her music. She was diagnosed in the late ‘80s with what is now known as bipolar disorder. By then, she was living abroad, and alone, struggling with her finances and running afoul with her managers, record labels, and the Internal Revenue Service. To save herself, she had to learn to live as her fullest self. Part of living with one’s self fully is knowing your strengths. Simone knew hers was at the piano, and she returned to performing in 1987. Psychiatrist Kavetha Sundaramoothy suggests we can live brave by setting aside petty concerns about our mistakes (you will make them); being kind to ourselves (sometimes we’re our own worst enemy); taking responsibility (own up to your short comings and take charge of the moment you have right now); and don’t forget to laugh. Find moments of happiness that allow you to create pure fun, just for you.

6. Remember Your Truest Love

Beyond the piano, Simone loved being a mom. She even bragged, “I was a goddamn good mother.” But after Simone moved Lisa to Liberia, she became “Mommy Dearest” to her then 14-year-old 7th grader. “I could never do anything right,” Lisa says candidly in the film. “She was now beating me.” Although Nina Simone and Lisa reunited when she was 20, mending relationships between a parent and adult child can take time and consistent effort. It’s never too late for a prodigal parent to reconnect with the grown up kids. Write weekly letters, email messages, or set up phone calls – even if they are rejected, psychologist-author Joshua Coleman (When Parents Hurt) tells The New York Times. Be generous in taking responsibility for mistakes made, even if they didn’t seem that way at first. Of course, as a parent, you may think you’ve done the best job you could. But the brokenness of the parent-child bond can lead to persistent feelings of melancholy and emotional pain. And in those latter years, the stress that comes from the separation is almost never worth it.

7. It’s OK to be Misunderstood

Sure, there’s a bit of irony that one of the signature songs of one of the most misunderstood artists of the 20th Century is, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” But that’s certainly not a bad thing. Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted that “to be great is to be misunderstood.” Think of all the inventors, explorers, and entrepreneurs who were considered “crazy” or “out of touch” for their aspirations and ideas. Women like Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Ava DuVernay, Mae Jemison, Shirley Chisolm, Rosa Parks, and our beloved Harriet Tubman created new paths in uncharted territories by saying, “I can,” when the social construct said otherwise. Even Simone’s genius is now being appreciated by new generations of artists including Common, Lauryn Hill, and Mary J. Blige (who are featured on the companion CD for What Happened, Miss Simone?) So know your heart, trust your instincts, and continue on your journey to greatness.

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles-based journalist, author and film artist and a regular contributor to ForHarriet.com. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @JaniceRhoshalle.