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Salamishah Tillet

Salamishah Tillet is assistant professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination (Duke University Press, 2012), co-editor of the forthcoming Seems the Good Die Young: Music, Mourning, and The Political Assassinations of the 1960s, and wrote liner notes for the album, Wake Up! by John Legend and The Roots. She is currently working on a book on Nina Simone.

 

Abstract:

"Bethlehem, Boardwalks, and the City of Brotherly Love: Nina Simone's Pre-Civil Rights Aesthetic"

While Nina Simone’s mid-1960s songs, which include “Mississippi Goddam,” “Old Jim Crow,” and “Four Women,” are widely canonized as the apex of her civil rights vision and her most scathing indictments of racial segregation in the American South, this paper traces how Simone inaugurated her protest aesthetic in cities, such as Atlantic City and Philadelphia, that rarely appear in histories of the modern civil rights struggle. By specifically focusing on how the diverse soundscape of Simone’s first album, “Little Girl Blue,” recorded with Bethlehem Records in New York City in 1957, anticipates the desegregationist strategies of her subsequent songs, I reveal that her civil rights aesthetic is not only a response to the movement down South. Instead, “Little Girl Blue,” an album born out of Simone’s navigation of the racially segregated classical music scene of Philadelphia and the supper clubs of Atlantic City in the 1950s. It provided the foundation for her sonic black radicalism and the political aesthetic that later earned her the moniker, “the chanteuse of the civil rights movement.”