I love it when I have a clear idea about what I’m going to write — only to discover that spirit has an entirely different plan. It’s amazing how often the universe steps in to co-create with and teach us … if we are only willing to notice and listen.
I started yesterday morning the way I do nearly every Sunday, with coffee and breakfast watching Sunday TODAY with Willie Geist. His featured guest was Andra Day.
I’ve heard her Grammy-winning anthem for civil rights, “Rise Up,” hundreds of times — but I knew very little about the person behind the performer. In addition to being extremely talented, I learned that Andra is spiritually centered, intelligent and introspective, and very humble.
She had great trepidation about making her acting debut portraying the music legend who inspired her own last stage name in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. She also wasn’t sure about following in the footsteps of another icon, Diana Ross, who portrayed Billie Holiday to perfection in Lady Sings the Blues.
When Andra learned that director Lee Daniels was basing this depiction on how Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching protect song “Strange Fruit” brought her triumph and tragedy, the actress knew she had to do it. Learning more about Day and why the project was so important to her made me watch the movie that night.
It didn’t take long to realize what I wanted to write about this week instead … what I had to write about.
Like the rest of us, Billie Holiday was filled with brilliance and shadows. Very often, her light showed up in her darkness and vice versa. She captured it all with that unparalleled trademark voice and spirit.
For years I listened to and enjoyed Billie Holiday’s music, without knowing her history. Since she was a black person — a black woman — in this country, I had a strong inkling that she faced her fair share of challenges and injustices. The truth made any notions I had pale in comparison.
During her tortured and tenuous lifetime, Holiday was relentlessly pursued and prosecuted by the FBI for singing the song “Strange Fruit.” The song made people feel uncomfortable — especially white men in positions of authority. It pointed out their dark side.
At the time, who could argue with the FBI? They were claiming to go after Holiday for her lifelong drug use — even if they had to plant the drugs and intimidate others to frame her. But, in the view of the American people, they were trying to keep the streets clean.
That’s the insidiousness of racism. It’s never really what it appears to be.
I wonder how many enjoyed Billie Holiday’s brilliance as an artist while turning a blind eye to how she was treated as a human and spiritual being — how we still treat people this way. I wonder who experienced outrage about those in power and privilege trying to cancel Billie Holiday the way they did — and who didn't — and how that legacy is now in ingrained in all of our DNA. I will never listen to any of her songs the same way again.
During my parents’ lifetime, someone’s career and life was destroyed because they had the “nerve” and courage to stand up and say, “Enough. Your deeds need to be on record.” Literally.
We don’t like looking at ourselves and the way that even the best of us can fall prey to public messaging, peer pressure, and the innermost matter of our DNA. We need to look, if not for the good of all, for the well-being of our own souls.
We need to consider where cancel culture started … with each one of us. We cancel each other out when the truth becomes too intense to bare … when we are not sure how to make it back into the light.
Holiday claimed to not even enjoy performing “Strange Fruit.” In her autobiography, she said: “It reminds me of how Pop died. But I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because 20 years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”
Nearly a century later it is still happening. It is why a passionate artist named Andra Day accepted the challenge of a lifetime. It is why the work of making sure that no one — not someone like Billie Holiday or the man on the corner — is ever canceled again for the color of their skin.
It is why we cannot believe that what is really happening in the George Floyd trial is about procedure and keeping our men in blue safe.
It is why we need to not only listen to the music that we and other have created but to face it with the authenticity and responsibility we owe to our creator and the human race.