Nina Simone, social injustice and the urge to write

I’m inspired to write again.

This is the result of a chain of thoughts and events, ending with “What happened, Miss Simone?” which I just finished watching on Netflix.

I was looking for something with fairly light, abstract social commentary - like The Hunger Games if I hadn’t already seen it. If The Maze Runner had been on Netflix, I probably would have watched that. But I found “What happened” instead.

These are interesting times. Jeremy Corbyn was just pronounced Labour leader. Politics is interesting again. And yesterday I went to dConstruct 2015, a design conference in Brighton. The theme was “Designing the future”, with mostly talks about what “the future” meant, or about how far technology has come, or about metadesign.

The interesting talks came right at the end: Ingid Burrington gave a wonderful, rambling and chaotic talk partly about social activism having unintended consequences.

And then Mark Stevenson gave an incredibly inspiring talk about how many accepted business models of the world genuinely are changing, and very soon. Energy companies are now at a point where they have to embrace renewables or die: solar is cheaper than ever; technology is being pioneered to literally turn carbon dioxide into fuel; electric cars are poised to take over and self-driving cars are close. We’re entering an age where the enhancements we give to disabled people are starting to make them better than normal humans. Empowering access to education and power literally is coming to the masses. He spoke about how designing the next smartphone app is hideously boring compared to the sort of technological and social changes that are coming.

The theme throughout the conference, for me at least, was basically to get off your arse and become part of the movement. The system is changing - help us design the new one. Have courage, and don’t accept that your job is just to design a slightly better user interface. See the bigger picture, use your skills to push for designs that really help people and change things. Don’t just create masturbatory “pretty” indulgences.

Just before watching “What happened” this morning I went to the dConstruct archive to see if the talks were up there yet. They weren’t, but I ended up listening to a talk from last year, Hypertext as an Agent of Change. This was a talk all about “the network” and the fantastic importance of evolving our communication systems to the evolution of human society. The internet and social media are where we tell and form and build on stories about society, like the stories of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Or here in the UK, Mark Duggan or Jean-Charles de Menezes.

Which brings us back to Nina Simone. “What happened” tells the story of how, even though she was a genius who lived to 70 and was recognized within her lifetime, she was largely depressed, unhappy and abused. It’s a heartbreaking psychological tale that has everything to do with the injustices in society. Growing up, Nina was halfway between, and somewhat isolated from, both the white and black communities. She was subconsciously very effected by the racial divide. As a confused young adult she initially found comfort and sanctuary by marrying the powerful and controlling Andrew Stroud, but ultimately he beat and raped her and as her manager he drove her to exhaustion working as a recording artist.

She was passionately involved in the civil rights movement, to her great credit (although she preferred violence to nonviolence), but as Attalah Shabbazz put it, “participation and activism during the 60s rendered chaos in any individual’s lives”. Nina left her marriage and left America to live in Liberia until her money ran out, at which point she went and found some friends in Europe. They helped look after her, but ultimately also forced her back into the music business. In an interview later in her life, Nina said she wouldn’t have changed being part of the civil rights movement, but also when asked “How far have we come?” she said “There aren’t any civil rights. Nothing is happening. There is no civil rights movement.”.

For me, Nina’s tragic life illustrates the meeting-point of many injustices. Nina was discriminated against because of her skin colour. She was controlled and abused by chauvinistic men. She was forced to work constantly by a culture that thinks work is the point of life. And she suffered from the violence of the civil rights movement.

And yet, Nina produced honest, direct, political and classically brilliant music, that changed people’s lives. The civil rights movement would have been much weaker without her.

This has further fueled my desire to take a look at my own creative output. I care passionately about issues of injustice, inequality and civil rights, but I hardly ever write about them. I am completely on board with the idea that we should all be trying to shape the future into something better than the world we have, but what have I actually done to try to achieve that?

I no longer despair that the world cannot change, that my voice is just another shout into the void. As Mark Stevenson showed, things are changing. Our voices have had an effect. The world really is realizing that climate change needs an urgent solution, that the powers of state surveillance need fixing, that inequality is out of control, that the economy is broken. And much more importantly, the opinion of the people is now making a difference. You may think you’re silent, but just wait. If you shout you will be heard.

So I am using this to encourage myself to write more, to participate in the discussion, and in the future description of society. I want to write serious pieces, about truths and ideas that I believe in, because I now believe many others believe in them too.

I don’t just want to write about ideas. I do believe there are ideas out there that can change the world if only people understood them - ideas like Universal Basic Income, Bodily Autonomy and Grazing. But genuinely revolutionary ideas are rare, and they certainly don’t come from me.

More important than that is just stating my opinion. Bearing witness, showing support. Support for women and feminism, support for trade unions, increased tax on the rich, support for migrants and refugees. Bearing witness to Obama’s expansion of the horrific drone program, the UK’s own drone program and David Cameron’s refusal to accept Syrian refugees. And to Shell’s hugely irresponsible drilling in the arctic.

So I am now going to make a renewed effort to publish. Publish my opinions, make them known, shout about the things I think are important, the injustices. Because people are listening, and the future is being written by us, every day.

By @nottrobin