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Andra Day On Portraying BilIie Holiday And The Enduring Strength Of 'Strange Fruit'

Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day, in a still from <em>The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.</em>
Takashi Seida
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Corporation
Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day, in a still from The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.

The song "Strange Fruit" was written by a man named Abel Meeropol in the 1930s — but it will forever be associated with Billie Holiday. The lyrics vividly describe a lynching, and this haunting protest song is central to the new movie The United States Vs. Billie Holiday. The Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day plays the title character. The role is Day's acting debut, but she has already won a Golden Globe for her performance.

"Andra Day'' is actually her stage name, a tribute to Holiday herself: Day has been a fan since she was about 11 years old. The artist grabbed it from "Lady Day," which is a nickname Holiday received from Lester Young, one of her greatest friends. "I love the relationship between her and Lester Young," Days says, "the amazing, incomparable Lester Young. And he gave her the nickname Lady Day and she called him 'The President' or 'Prez' for short. And then he named her mother 'The Dutchess' — well, that's Billie's telling of it, and she would always refer to them as 'The Royal Family,' so. I love the name 'Lady Day.' It's, you know, it feels regal to me."

Andra Day spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about the pressure of playing Billie Holiday, how she initially rejected the role and the enduring intensity of "Strange Fruit." Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ari Shapiro: I'm just trying to imagine how a child would relate to this song, "Strange Fruit," which is so central to this film.

Andra Day: I mean, at 11 years old, even though I didn't know all the details of what she was talking about, it's felt. You know what I'm saying? It's in my DNA. It's in our DNA.

Our DNA as a country, you mean.

Yeah, I think as a nation. And as a people, as Black people ... I remember being very quieted by the song, almost sort of prostrated. All I knew was it made me sad — it made me know that whoever this woman was seeing, made me concerned for her ... I knew that she sacrificed. I knew there was some loss. There was such pain there and it was ... it stunned me as a child. It really just struck me.

Did the fact that your first acting role wound up being Billie Holiday feel like the universe had conspired in just the right way? Or was it like, your first ever race is suddenly the New York City Marathon? What's the experience?

Definitely the latter. [Laughs] It just felt like, "Oh, so you want me to do a movie and you want me to do this role?" To be honest with you, my first reaction was actually, "Hell no." I really didn't wanna do it. And it turns out Lee [Daniels] didn't want me to do it either.

Lee Daniels, the director, didn't want you to do it?

No, he did not want me. It was his manager and his people being like, "You gotta meet her, you gotta meet her," you know? And my people telling me the same, so. I'd give people the visuals: him and I sitting in that meeting looking at each other like, "What the hell are we doing here?" [Laughs]

So, what won you over? Like, what tipped the scales for you?

You know, for me, I'm a very deeply spiritual person. At least, I like to try and consider myself as one. And so, it was two things in particular. It was prayer, ultimately. I remember kind of being lost in devotion, and I was reading and meditating on a scripture. I was actually trying to pray to get out of it. [Laughs] It was one of those, "Oh God, please God, make this go away!" And instead, what was in devotion that day was a scripture about being caused to do an act of great faith. Not to have somebody do something for you, or to make something go away, but to be caused to weather the storm and to do an act of great faith. And I was like, "Ah... " And the other thing was meeting Lee, you know. He had such a need to tell her story authentically, to show her as a layered human being. 'Cause it wasn't until he was, you know, this age that he understood who Billie was, in that that she was a fighter and that her legacy was intentionally suppressed.

So, one of the driving forces of this film is the FBI's fear of the song "Strange Fruit," which describes a lynching in these vivid, poetic, awful terms. Can you tell us about what the FBI was so afraid of?

First of all, thank you so much for saying "awful terms," That's one of the things for me on set, I realized calling "Strange Fruit" a beautiful song is almost like a slap in the face of what she was trying to do. You know? What makes it beautiful is its truth. But it's a horrific song. And what they were afraid of was that "Strange Fruit" is truth. It is sheer, unadulterated, uncompromising truth. And when you are trying to persist in a social climate of inequity, in a system of racial inequality – those systems are built on lies, and they're built on deception. And obviously, a system like that can really only be dismantled with truth and with light. Exposing these dark places, which, that's what "Strange Fruit" threatened to do. She was integrating audiences. She was trying to fight for equality. And they wanted a system of supremacy — and she was fighting against that.

You know, we so often hear artists talk about the power of art. But the fact that the FBI was afraid of the power of this song says something. And I just wonder what — for you — as a singer, that history tells you about the real world impact that your craft, your music, can have?

First of all, it just reminds me that it is power, you know? You hear this phrase all the time, right, that "Music is the only thing that can enter your psyche without permission." But it is actually that powerful. I think what its power is is not just the power to move and to shake things, but it's the power to heal. And in healing, things need to be moved. And they need to be shook. And they need to be torn down or built up, you know. And we see it — we saw it during the '60s, right, with all of this, sort of, renaissance of artists creating all this protest music surrounding race, surrounding the war. That just reminded me so powerfully, like, "That's what music does — it heals."

Can you tell me what it was like to deliver the line, "Your grandkids will be singing 'Strange Fruit,' " knowing that, here we are, 70 or so years later, talking about the song, listening to the song? The song lives on longer than any of the characters in the movie.

When I tell you, even just saying it — hearing you saying it — just gave me goosebumps. That s*** sat in my spirit so heavy and that felt — I was so happy to deliver that. It felt like the final blow. I know that I've sung that song. I know her grandkids and so on and so forth. The grandkids of the world have sung that song, 'cause I've done it myself. And so, I was also armed with that additional layer, playing her. So, a part of me was like, "Billie Holiday sang it to him," and then the other part of me was like, "Yeah, b****! We will be singing it! Yes! Yes!" [Laughs] I was like, "You right, sis. We singin' it."
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.