“I feel what they feel. And people who listen to me know that, and it makes them feel like they’re not alone.”– Nina Simone
In high school, I listened to Nina Simone religiously. Not only was she a wildly gifted singer, songwriter, pianist, and musical arranger, but she was a committed activist who worked alongside MLK Jr. and Malcolm X. Every day after school, I would blast her music from my phone and pace around the house; “Feeling Good,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” stayed in rotation. I always had great admiration for Nina Simone, her sense of justice and urgency, her love for Black people, and the depths of feeling — and pain — which were always reflected in her music and hit me right where I needed them to.
I truly believed she felt what I felt and more. I knew Nina Simone and I were both pisces suns and mercuries, so I credited our similarly expansive range of feelings to our astrological placements and gravitation to sad music. However, the morning before I went to get Simone’s profile tattooed on my bicep, I found out that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 1980s—something else we have in common that describes the soaring highs and devastating lows. I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder (alongside my other mental illnesses) two weeks earlier after an intense manic episode that eventually turned into sleep deprivation psychosis and landed me in the hospital.
I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder two weeks earlier after an intense manic episode that eventually turned into sleep deprivation psychosis and landed me in the hospital.
Navigating this mental illness has been painful and isolating, but I find I am less alone whenever I call upon her music and interviews. With her permanently etched on my arm, I am reminded there is a very real genealogy and archive of my emotional experiences as a neurodivergent Black woman*, and I would be seen by her if not anyone else.
Navigating this mental illness has been painful and isolating, but I find I am less alone whenever I call upon her music and interviews.
When Nina Simone began working alongside Martin Luther King Jr., she told him, “I’m not non-violent.” Musical storytelling was her violent weapon against white supremacy and she waged it ragefully and diligently on behalf of her people. When four Black girls were killed in a church bombing carried out by white supremacists in Alabama, Simone armed herself with showtune: “Mississippi Goddam.” This seething song voiced the urgency and anguish around continous acts of white supremacist, anti-Black violence against Black people in the South and was banned in several states. Simone was ready to burn down buildings and kill for Black people:
“At first I tried to make myself a gun. I gathered some materials. I was going to take one of them out, and I didn’t care who it was. Then Andy, my husband at the time, said to me, ‘Nina, you can’t kill anyone. You are a musician. Do what you do.’ When I sat down the whole song happened. I never stopped writing until the thing was finished.”
Musical storytelling was her violent weapon against white supremacy and she waged it ragefully and diligently on behalf of her people.
Similar to Simone, my hope for freedom ignited a creative appetite that could only be satiated by true justice and liberation for Black people and a desire for immediate action that propelled me to speeds that made my head spin. During the 2020 Minneapolis Uprisings, I returned to “Mississippi Goddamn,” playing it every time I got in my car to join my comrades on the streets. The song was instigating and agitating, telling the world justice for stolen Black lives was moving too slow and we had to do something about it. I had my first of multiple manic episodes that summer, and that song was damn near the only thing that could keep up with me.
I decided then that I wasn’t non-violent either. We are justified, but, when you decide that while Black, mentally ill, and perceived as female, there are repercussions in how people perceive you and how crazy others make you out to be, especially as you react in response to the violence plaguing your lived experience. I remember standing outside the Minnesota Capitol Building hearing ancestors say clearly to me that we need to burn it all down, that we had to end the world, that we have to do whatever it takes and do it right now. Later, doctors described that experience as mania-induced psychosis, though I acknowledge it as a spiritual mandate that I still live by, but that’s for another essay.
I decided then that I wasn’t non-violent either.
The nights and mornings started to blend as I stayed up all night plotting, prophesying in my notes app, and preparing my manifesto. I didn’t advocate for violence exactly, but if it is a condition to gaining our freedom, I didn’t care; what I was asking for would always be interpreted as an assault, anyways, read through the lens of angry Black woman stereotypes.
What I was asking for would always be interpreted as an assault, anyways, read through the lens of angry Black woman stereotypes.
As the intensity built in my body, I noticed some of my family and friends began to recoil and shrink in my presence in a way that communicated I was too much. I was too pressed, too ‘angry’ and they couldn’t carry the weight of the gravity I knew to be true: this world was anti-Black and needed to end.
But the world didn’t burn. It just crashed on top of me and all of the possibilities I had imagined with it. It felt like my dreams died when the mania ended, and I wanted to die with them. People stopped being about revolution. The absence of tangible progress was excruciatingly loud and there was no dial to turn it down and no one to hold me.
I’m learning through my own experience and Nina Simone’s, bipolar disorder just makes the desire for revolution ever more dire, urgent, heavy. It feels like it all needs to be acted upon immediately. When others aren’t moving the same speed or with the same insistence, or understanding how painful it is to navigate the contradictions, depression & nihilism become your only comfort.
I bring up these experiences to speak to the intersections of Black activism, insurrection, and mental illness. That Nina Simone navigated these intersections is important. When I found out Nina Simone also had bipolar disorder, I questioned how hard it must have been for her as a dark-skinned Black woman with a highly stigmatized mental illness going through such triggering, mania-inducing events—how she must have been perceived and treated, how little space there was for any recovery. It pained me even further to think about how she navigated the depression when the mania ended.
Years of performing protest songs and meeting with young Black students around issues of Black freedom had not improved Nina Simone’s quality of life, and after giving all of the creativity, passion, and energy her spirit could give to the movement, nothing and no one could give her the urgency she demanded and deserved. She said in multiple interviews that she began to regret her protest songs, songs that she originally fought her husband-turned-manager to perform. “There is no reason to sing those songs, nothing is happening,” Simone told an interviewer in the 1980s.
After watching the 2015 American biographical documentary film, What Happened, Miss Simone?, I learned that not only was she navigating undiagnosed bipolar disorder for most of her life, but she was also deeply traumatized by her physically and financially abusive second-husband alongside the recurring trauma of being a widely known and in-demand protest singer and civil rights activist in the 1960s. The documentary shows Nina navigating the dark sides of being a bipolar trauma survivor—from being dazed and absent on stage to filled with uncontrollable rage and despair.
Nina Simone lived with co-occurring disorders, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and eventually schizophrenia. I find it important to remind myself that Nina Simone experienced violent outbursts, psychosis, and mania, and she is loved. She survived debilitating depression and suicidal ideation, and she is loved. She is and was loved for her fierceness, bold honesty, creative genius, and for being so much herself in all of her identities. Maya Angelou writes in her essay, “She is loved or feared, adored or disliked, but few who have met her music or glimpsed her soul react with moderation. She is an extremist, extremely realized.” Nina Simone reminds me that neurodivergent folks are tapped into another world and frequency; our ‘extreme’ and deeply felt experiences have us looking for a world that can hold them.
Nina Simone reminds me that neurodivergent folks are tapped into another world and frequency; our ‘extreme’ and deeply felt experiences have us looking for a world that can hold them.
None of this is to say that Nina Simone’s brilliance and political urgency are simply manifestations of mental illness, but her neurodivergence matters and should be named as it is a part of her. When we discuss her legacy and her participation in historical moments, we should consider how she showed up and what she went through as a neurodivergent Black woman and trauma survivor. If we name her as such, it has the potential to provide space for those who resonate with that experience to be seen and reflected in history—to know that there was someone who came before who maneuvered through these emotional extremes and divergent energies. When we look, there’s a genealogy of neurodivergent Black folks and a pending demand for true justice and liberation to guide us.
*I am gender fluid/non-binary but still very much resonate with Black womanhood
*If folks choose to view the documentary, What Happened Miss Simone?, it is important to warn that her abuser was significantly featured throughout and was given space to speak on Nina Simone’s legacy and his abuse.
Kira is an organizer, student, & writer based in Washington, D.C. and Minnesota doing work around Black anarchy, abolition, and theories of racialization. They currently do work with Libereaders, a community mutual aid library that provides Black radical reads and hosts educational events about liberation.
Follow them here: https://www.instagram.com/kir_bunk