The 8 Most Powerful Quotes From The Nina Simone Doc “What Happened, Miss Simone?”

The film is a stunning portrait of the pianist, jazz singer, and civil-rights activist who made it her mission to shake up a generation.

“But what happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?”


Maya Angelou posed the question 45 years ago in an essay published in Redbook magazine, and it’s at the center of Liz Garbus’s powerful and brutally honest documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? So what did happen to Simone, neé Eunice Waymon–that little girl from Tryon, North Carolina, who so fiercely dreamed of becoming the first famous black classical pianist? Ambassador Shabazz, family friend and daughter of Malcolm X, has the most poignant answer: “She was not at odds with the times–the times was at odds with her,” Shabazz says in the documentary. “I think when a person moves to their own kind of clock, spirit, flow, if we were living in an environment that allowed us to be exactly who we are, you’re always in congress with yourself.”

To unpack a virtuoso and revolutionary like Simone, who can be referred to as “troubled” and “genius” in the same breath, it’s essential to look at the grating conflict of who she wanted to be versus who she felt she should be–all in her own words. “Nina herself lived a life of unflinching honesty. I needed, with this film, to strive for that level of complexity,” says Garbus. “So, along with my extraordinary team of producers, we began to comb the earth for all remnants of Nina telling her story. Radio interviews, TV interviews, backstage chats at performances . . . Diaries, letters, notebooks left behind.”

What Garbus created is a candid portrait of Simone, expertly layered with her music that has influenced generations–particularly during the civil-rights movement, where Simone’s frank lyrics helped give the black community a voice. Here are some of the most memorable quotes in What Happened, Miss Simone?, outlining Simone’s stormy and incredibly gifted life:

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear.”

“When I first started to take lessons, I became terribly aware of how isolated I was from the other children, and how isolated I was from the white community and the negro community. They always wanted me just to play the piano for them to dance. I wasn’t asked too much to do anything else. That was very hard.”

“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. So sometimes I sound like gravel, and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”


“Well, I loved the audience, but I wasn’t playing classical music and I wanted to be, so I wrote [to my parents], ‘Yes, I’m in Carnegie Hall, finally, but I’m not playing Bach.'”

“When the civil-rights thing came up, all of a sudden I could let myself be heard about what I’d been feeling all the time.”

Photo: courtesy of Photofest, Netflix

“I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty. And 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’ve always thought that I was shaking people up, but now I want to go at it more, and I want to go at it more deliberately, and I want to go at it coldly. I want to shake people up so bad, that when they leave a nightclub where I’ve performed, I just want them to be to pieces.”

“I am just one of the people who is sick of the social order, sick of the establishment, sick to my soul of it all. To me, America’s society is nothing but a cancer, and it must be exposed before it can be cured. I am not the doctor to cure it. All I can do is expose the sickness.”


About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.