"Strange Fruit": A Song of Resilience

Open Access
Author:
Kraemer, Lauretta
Area of Honors:
History
Degree:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Daniel L Letwin, Thesis Supervisor
  • Cathleen Denise Cahill, Honors Advisor
Keywords:
  • music
  • billie holiday
  • kanye west
  • racism
  • nina simone
  • 1939
  • civil rights movement
  • blood on the leaves
  • botl
  • strange fruit
Abstract:
In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” the anti-lynching song with lyrics originally written as a poem by the son of a Jewish immigrant. Since that first recording, dozens of artists have used the solemn, earnest song, most famously including Nina Simone and Kanye West. This thesis seeks to understand the context in which Holiday used her celebrity to establish an anti-lynching song from the Great Depression. Simone and West used it to explore racism in subsequent generations. Holiday experienced extreme racial bias during the 1930s and 1940s. Discrimination against African-American singers often worked to exclude her from genuinely enjoying her stardom. This prejudice was often met with empathy from many Jewish songwriters, club owners, and certain record labels who understood her feelings of isolation. When she sang, lynchings were still fresh in the minds of Americans. By the 1950s, Nina Simone also received poor treatment from the music industry: record labels that did not pay her royalties and venues refused to hire her because of her politics. Moreover, her choice to emphasize controversial songs isolated her from the rest of the music. Simone added “Strange Fruit” to her repertoire of protest music that she championed during the civil rights movement. Almost fifty years after Nina Simone’s cover of the song, Kanye West sampled Simone’s voice in his 2013 album, Yeezus. The album, as a whole, highlighted the need for African-Americans to occupy more management and supervisory roles in order to improve their socio-economic position. “Blood on the Leaves,” however, used misogynistic language and allusions to drug use to explore the discriminatory stereotypes of African-American rappers. The three singers share striking similarities in each performer’s willingness to sacrifice his or her reputation within the music industry in order to assert often controversial beliefs.