This song, originally recorded and released in 1968, is a medley of two songs from the musical Hair, and helped to draw a younger, pop-oriented audience to Nina Simone. Affirming life in the face of adversity, Simone brings her characteristic passion to the music, telling us that despite hard times, she is inalienably intact. The lyrics make explicit reference to ailments (“I got a headache, and toothache/And bad times too like you”) and to bodily integrity (“I got my feet, I got my toes/I got my liver, got my blood/I’ve got life, I’ve got my freedom, I’ve got life, I’m gonna keep it”), reminding us that the social determinants of population health matter at the individual level.
In 1960, racial and socioeconomic inequalities in health in the United States were pronounced, with higher rates of death prior to the age of 65 among African Americans and those who were most socioeconomically disadvantaged. However, by the time this song was released, racial and socioeconomic inequalities in health enjoyed a decline that would continue until the 1980s, when the trend reversed. The decline in health inequalities between 1960 and 1980 is attributable to the broad federal policy regime enacted in the civil rights era—the War on Poverty, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the establishment of Medicaid, Medicare, and community health centers—of which Simone was a vociferous champion.
George Wein, Simone’s friend and jazz concert promoter, said, “That’s what separated Nina from the other singers. Nina took civil rights and the movement, the fight to another level, and made it part of her persona.”
Simone herself was no stranger to ill health. She suffered from schizophrenia and developed breast cancer—health conditions that have been shown to disproportionately affect African Americans. She died at the age of 70 in 2009, surviving about 15 years longer than the cohort of black women into which she was born, and some five years longer than the average white woman born the same year. In her music, however, Simone is immortalized. “Ain’t Got No” still resonates, and Simone still inspires.
Edited by Jordan Lite. Additional research by Lauren Weisenfluh.