Investigating the ambiguity of freedom with Nina Simone

The wish to be free was substantial quest for Nina Simone. She has written songs about it and talked about freedom in interviews. But what is freedom actually? In one interview[1] Nina speaks about freedom, however she mentions a couple of elements about it:

  1. ‘It [freedom] is just a feeling’
  2. ‘I felt freedom on stage’ [when performing]
  3. ‘Freedom is no fear’

Freedom as the absence of fear is on the level of the emotions: without limiting fears one has the sensation of being free.

Another source where Nina discusses freedom comes from the song ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’[2].

In this performance at Montreux in 1976, Nina virtuously plays the piano while describing her wish to be free. In this song freedom gets a spiritual dimension: ‘I wish everybody would know what it is to be free, because if we don’t were murderers [of our selfs].

The definition of freedom from this song differs from the interview above. Here, freedom goes one-step further. It becomes a capability than just a feeling. Not just daring to be free, but one step further: being able to be free.

Recently, after watching the touching documentary ‘What happened, Miss Simone’ about her life, I was wondering again what freedom means. Since Nina had such an intriguing and eventful life, one can investigate multiple aspects of freedom to Nina’s life.

Nina had a grand personality and a great sense of justice. When she was just a little child, at one of her first public performances, her (black) parents were not allowed to attend her performance sitting. She would not start with her recital until her parents were allowed to sit on the front row. Nina was always painfully aware about racism in her early childhood.

A personality like Nina typically needs a lot of space in order to feel free. Her thoughts about equality of race and gender were radical at the time. Unfortunately, there were quite some restrictions in her life. Next to being black, as a young talented girl, she would practice many serious hours of piano instead of playing joyfully with order kids. Later, she played long hours at nightclubs in order to sustain her family. Even later yet her husband meticulously planned her career. To be quite fair, these restrictions did give Nina to what she wanted at the time: famous and rich. However, it did not give the freedom she was longing for. Quite the opposite: Nina became a workaholic which made her deeply unhappy and longing for deeper form of freedom (See Work Song[3] ). Later in her life, she took a long overdue vacation from everything and everyone (got a divorce, left her daughter behind, emigrated) for about eight years. Without responsibilities and enjoying life, was Nina free at last?

Sadly, freedom is not so easy. As Nina’s example shows us, there were other, more difficult barriers to freedom: the personal kind. Nina had mental health issues. She suffered from depressions and quite late in her life she got a proper diagnosis of her mental state (manic depressive and bipolar) and medication. In the years before this, she was haunted by fears arising from the depths of her mind. Is freedom to be healthy and happy and not to go mad from time to time? But, on the other hand, would Nina have created the music that she did and would Nina have fought against racism if she was mentally healthy (and perhaps happy)?

We can distinguish between a lower and a higher form of freedom. The lower form of freedom can be likened with happiness. Nina got her share of this lower freedom from sex, drinking, luxury and a long vacation. Only, as Nina’s story shows, these were superficial forms of freedom. Temporary escapes from her inner demons. The higher form of freedom has to do with purpose and sadly often comes with hardship. Nina intuitively fought her whole life against discrimination: her outcry against the racist violence in the song Mississippi Goddam[4] made her infamous. Her protest songs almost cost Nina her career. But Nina was free: on stage she had an audience where she could express her beliefs relatively open. At the time, before mass communication and Internet, this was a great feat. Nina wanted to change the world, which is obviously not possible. Consequently, Nina became angry and frustrated: she could say and shout what she wanted, but nothing would actually change.

For me, when I watch the Montreux performance of ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’, I see a woman who was born to entertain and inspire. Magically her fingers fly over the piano. The rhythm is ever changing life a mountain river. And always, Nina is completely in control.

It is also how I personally experience freedom: it is passionately doing. Instead of making music, I dance. But when I dance, I can feel completely free. With myself and one with my environment at the same time. Making music, singing or dancing can connect us with higher powers. We are lifted above our daily selves. On stage making music Nina was free, but the freedom came at a cost. Like a Phoenix she would rise above the stage and intoxicate everyone with her presence. Nina inspired her audience to be free. But after the show, Nina would be exhausted and the Phoenix would reduce to ashes. Off stage Nina experienced a completely different kind of freedom: feelings of loneliness and depression.

Concluding, we can say that Nina in her quest for freedom did manage to overcome her fears. Although she was plagued by depressions, she did speak up, went on stage and did what she deeply felt she had to do. However, she was only partly capable to be free. With her talent and hard work, she was able to become free on stage. In daily life, however, she was troubled and caught by her worries and thoughts. Nina was both blessed and cursed in her life. Her talent and music was her golden ticket towards freedom, but tragically Nina was tragically not able to integrate this freedom into her daily life. The quest for freedom seems to be an arduous one. Yes, it can give you moments of great fulfillment, but it is also a lonely burden. However, her honest, daring and passionate quest for freedom have inspired many people on their journey for freedom to this day.