For me, it was in ninth grade and my teacher made the class watch this documentary about the history of lynching, and “Strange Fruit” was discussed within the film. I had heard of the song before and knew of its racism related context.
But, after hearing the eery piano chords and heart wrenching lyricism echoed from the lips of Billie Holiday, I was almost in tears and began to look at racism in a completely different light.
At that moment, I knew that music could truly be a powerful force for change.
Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit” is regarded as one of the first Black protest song to address racism in America. First recorded by Holiday in 1939, the song sold 10,000 copies in the first week, it reached number 16 on the U.S. Billboard charts, but most importantly, it was the first time that anyone used pop music to stand up to a terrifying social and political institution (Strange Fruit).
The song directly addresses the gruesome act of lynching, which served as a socializing force within the white community and asserted white supremacy. Between 1889 and 1930, 3,724 lynchings took place, and 4/5 of those lynched were African American (Strange Fruit).
Not only was Holiday’s song radical for its time, but she asserted boldness and strength in choosing to record the song.
For some, it may be hard to recollect exactly how you stumbled upon the record, but regardless of when or how you heard it, “Strange Fruit” is a song that will always be etched in the hearts and minds of many.
Just as Holiday woke up America with her compelling version of “Strange Fruit,” there are tons of musicians who have used music to speak out against various forms of injustice.
Throughout the month of February, Roots, Rhythm and Rhyme will be presenting commentary about socially-conscience music created by various R&B, jazz, and hip-hop artists.
Analyzing songs such as “Strange Fruit,” or Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” will further showcase how much of an important role music has played in the continued fight for equality.
The first few days will focus on protest music produced by jazz legends such as bassist Charlie Mingus, drummer Max Roach, and saxophonist Archie Shepp, as well as contemporary jazz musicians like bassist Marcus Shelby and trumpeter Christian Scott.
Katz, Joel, dir. Strange Fruit. PBS, 2002. Film.