Billie Holiday: A Voice of Protest

Never silent your voice. Speak out.

I am on vacation, so one of the things I enjoy is watching movies or series. Recently, I watched The United States vs. Billie Holiday, directed by Lee Daniels, with the casting of Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, Evan Ross, and others.

The film is a biography of jazz singer, Billie Holiday. Her performances, her love life, the violence cycle she lived, her period in jail, and drug addiction.

The movie starts with the text about the lynching of black individuals that occurred in the United States since the 1930s until the creation of the Civil Rights in 1950s and 1960s. Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” is based on the lynching of black a North American; thus, its lyrics were consider controversial. This song was prohibited to be sung on many occasions; however, the public continued to ask Holiday to sing it. She was a rebel and refused to stop singing it. Once, she was on the stage, she knew as well that she will have the support of  Lester Young who was her saxophonist, so it was sung as many times she wanted. This was the ‘reason’ used as an excuse by the Antinarcotic, from the FBI to jailed her, arrested, harass her. Drug was planted on her on many occasions.

Holiday new she was targeted for being a black woman, who was protesting for her people. She knew it was a violation of human rights executed by the government; however, all the above incidents never stop her to silencing her voice as a way of protest.

The song “Strange Fruit” was composed by Abel Meeropol and recorded in 1939 by Holiday. The song is based on a poem from Meeropol which is a protest of the lynching that occurred in the Southern U.S.A., against black people and which had a peak in the early 20th century.  The song compares the victims of lynching with the fruits of the trees.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

This song, without a doubt, was one of the best moments of her career. In 1978, it was received in the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was also mentioned in the list as “Song of the Century”. Many other singers such as Nina Simone, Diana Rose, Jeff Buckley, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and others made versions of the song.

Youtube Video

The song USA Government once wated to be silent is an icon, not only for the last century, but also applicable today as a symbol for all the black individuals that are being shot in this country by the government (police). Today blood is on the road and not on the leaves of the trees.

If Holiday were to be present today, I am sure she will sing the song from her heart. The context for the black community has not changed. There is a hierarchical and institutionalized racism that prevails over ‘human rights’ of the black individuals.

Nina Simone

¿Qué sabes de Nina Simone? En este artículo hay cinco cosas que deberías saber.

Traducido por Afroféminas

Photo by Jasgleidy Duarte on Unsplash

En este mes de la historia negra quiero compartir con ustedes uno de los íconos de la industria musical y una de mis artista preferida. Ella es Nina Simone.

Nina Simone fue una de las artistas femeninas más destacadas del siglo XX del blues, jazz, soul, gospel y otros géneros. Nació en Tryon, Carolina del Norte, Estados Unidos de América, el 21 de febrero de 1933, bajo el nombre de Eunice Kathleen Waymon. Ella era la sexta de ocho hijos. Su madre, Mary Kate Waymon, era un ministra metodista, y su padre era John Devan Waymon, un predicador. Murió en su casa ubicada en el sur de Francia el 21 de abril de 2003.

5 cosas que debes saber sobre Nina

1- A los tres o cuatro años comenzó a tocar el piano en la iglesia, no cantaba. Un día en su actuación, fue escuchada por la señorita Mazzanovich, quien se interesó en darle clases de piano, donde aprendió música clásica de grandes y famosos músicos como Johann Sebastian Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven y Schubert.

2- Después de estudiar música en Julliard en la ciudad de Nueva York, a los 19 años se postuló al prestigioso Instituto Curtis de Música en Filadelfia, pero su admisión fue denegada. Le tomó varios años admitir que el racismo era la razón. En 2003, pocos días antes de su muerte, el mismo Instituto le otorgó un título honorífico.

3- En 1961, Nina se casó con Andy Stroud, quien se convirtió en su manager y padre de su hija, Lisa Simone Kelly. Desafortunadamente, él abusó de ella física y psicológicamente.

4- Era una activista de los derechos civiles y amiga de Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Correta Scott King y otros. Compuso muchas canciones para la causa.

Ella dijo: «¿Cómo puedes ser artista y no reflejar tu tiempo»? Con la canción Mississippi Goddam, abordó la desigualdad racial por primera vez después del asesinato de Medgar Evers y el bombardeo de la Iglesia Bautista en Birmingham, Alabama, que mató a cuatro chicas negras. El 15 de marzo de 1965, habló y actuó en la marcha de Selma a Montgomery.

5- Nina se volvió violenta en su carrera y vida personal, comportamiento que se entendió cuando le diagnosticaron un trastorno bipolar. Lisa (su hija) sufrió severamente las consecuencias de esto hasta el punto de que adquirió comportamientos suicidas, por lo que tuvo que regresar a Nueva York para vivir con su padre.

Nina Simone

“How can you be an artist and not reflect the time”? Nina Simone

Months ago I watched the documentary What happened Miss Simone?, who is one my of favourite female singers.

The documentary starts with Maya Angelou’s quotation: “Miss Simone you are idolized even loved, by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?” In the first scene, Nina’s bows to the public, she sits at the piano, takes her time, and then starts to talk. This was at a concert in 1968.

The documentary that lasts 1:42 minutes is directed by Liz Garbus and produced by Amy Hobby in 2015. It describes Nina’s life and career through the voices of family members, activists, musicians, friends, etc. accompanied by her own music composition, an interviews done to her, and concerts.

Nina Simone was one of the outstanding female artists from the twentieth century of Blues, Jazz, Soul, Gospel, and other genres. She was born in Tryon, North Carolina, United States of America,  on February 21st, 1933, under the name of Eunice Kathleen Waymon. She was the sixth of eight children. Her mother, Mary Kate Waymon, was a Methodist minister, and her dad was John Devan Waymon, a handyman and preacher. She died at her home located in the South of France on April 21st, 2003.

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1950: Photo of Nina Simone Photo by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

5 things to know about Nina

1- At age three or four she started to play the piano at church, she didn’t sing. One day at her performance, she was heard by Miss Mazzanovich, who got interested in giving her piano classes, where she learned classical music of great and famous musicians like Johann Sebastian Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert.

2- After studying music at Julliard in New York City, at age 19 she applied to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but her admission was denied. It took her several years to admit that racism was the reason. In 2003, just days before her death, the same Institute awarded her an honorary degree.

3- In 1961, Nina got married to Andy Stroud, who became her manager and father to her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly. Unfortunately, he abused her physically and psychologically.

4- She was a civil rights activist and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Correta Scott King, and others. She composed a lot of songs for the cause.

She said: ” How can you be an artist and not reflect the time”? With the song Mississippi Goddam, she addressed racial inequality for the first time after the killing of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black girls.

On the 15 of March, 1965, she spoke and performed at the march from Selma to Montgomery.

One of the parts in the documentary I got chill skin was when she sang To be Young, Gifted and Black, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The title of this song is from a play her friend, Lorraine Hansberry, was writing before her death. 

5- Nina became violent in her career and personal life,  behaviour which was understood when she was diagnosed to be a bipolar disorder. Lisa (her daughter) severely suffered the  consequences of  this to the point that it became suicidal making it necessary for her, to move back to New York to live with her father. 

5 things to learn from Nina

1- Her childhood was marked by the “Jim Crow” laws. During the debut of one of her classical recital concerts, she refused to play because her parents who were sitting in the front seat were forced to move to the back of the hall to make way for white people. She played until her parents were relocated.

2- Even though she was famous, she was not silent to denounce and describe her circle of gender violence.

3- She was proud of her black identity, which she describes in many of her lyrics. The objective of these songs was to shape people’s minds not to be ashamed of their roots.

4- From the first to the last shot in the documentary, Nina Simone was a queen of fashion. She was always put together with colourful clothes, makeup, shoes, bags, hats etc.

5-We all need to let go and be free. Nina did it by abandoning her career and family when she moved to Liberia, Africa. She got a lot of criticisms, but she responded that it was the happiest moment of her life. In an interview, she said: ” Freedom for me is no fear”.

Anytime I watch her concerts, I am amazed to see the way she performs. She was very engaging with her audience, charismatic, she enjoyed being on stage, her body movements and passion while singing said it all. 

One of my favourite songs by Nina is Feeling good from her album I Put a Spell on You (1965):

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel

River running free, you know how I feel

Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn

It’s a new day

It’s a new life

For me

And I’m feeling good.

So don’t be silent, sing your song loud and proud, just as Nina did, but also add your part.