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In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, four little girls were killed in a racist bombing of a church that civil rights organizers worked out of.
Nina Simone describes hearing about the bombing as a breakthrough moment. Although she'd been involved with civil rights since 1961, she was never really full-force about it. When she heard about those four innocent little girls getting killed, she got angry: really angry.
The first thing she did was go to her garage to fashion a weapon. Her husband at the time had to talk her down from violence and tried to convince her to write songs instead. Beginning with "Mississippi Goddam," which she wrote that very week, that is just what she did.
The title and concept for "Four Women" might be a tribute to the four girls in Birmingham who never got to become women.
"The first thing I saw in the morning when I woke up was my black face in the bathroom mirror, and that fixed the way I felt about myself the rest of the day, that I was a black-skinned woman in a country where you could be killed because of that one fact," said Nina Simone once. (Source)
Nina Simone, who passed away in 2003, would probably be the first to tell you that the experience of being a Black woman defined her life as a musician. Now recognized as one of the 20th century's greatest original musicians, she began her career as a classical pianist, moved to being a lounge singer for mostly white audiences after being turned down by an elite classical music school (very possibly because of the color of her skin), and eventually developed into an avid civil rights activist whose songs addressed the intersections between race and gender.
After she had a political breakthrough in 1963 (see "Sinnerman" for that story), her increasingly sharp-tongued political songs drew strong reactions, both positive and negative. Simone's songs have been widely covered, sampled, and analyzed in the years since.
"Four Women" is one of the most iconic songs from the height of Simone's politicization. In 1966, Nina Simone was asked to introduce Stokely Carmichael at a rally in Philadelphia. She was in tears as she invited the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the stage, apparently saying "I have been thinking of some of these things since I was three years old" (source).
But as she devoted herself to a life of civil rights activism, and pushed for civil rights through her music, Simone was frequently criticized (especially by white media and fans); "Four Women" was banned from big radio stations for talking about rape, talking about a prostitute, and even for stereotyping Blacks.
But, like Peaches in "Four Women," Simone was clear and defiant. In 1967 she told a Billboard interviewer, "I'm going to sing about the race problem. It's needed. I know it does good because I feel my audience knows I'm not just an entertainer. I'm a colored woman! Don't you think bringing things out in the open is good?" (Source)