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Andra Day Sinks Her Teeth Into Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’

Photo Credit: Rich Polk for Getty

The year was 1937 when a Jewish teacher named Abel Meeropol wrote and published a poem called "Bitter Fruit." Impelled by a widely-circulated photograph of the lynching of two young Black men that haunted him for days, the brave critique of the heinous practice gained notoriety after he set the poem to music – primarily thanks to Billie Holiday's searing 1939 recording of the song, now renamed "Strange Fruit." Eighty years later, this stirring prose has been reinterpreted by Andra Day as the soundtrack for a worthy project called Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.

Spearheaded by the Equal Justice Initiative with support from Google, Lynching in America is a storytelling project "intended to invite an honest conversation about America's history of racial injustice and our journey forward." The headlines of the past few months alone are proof of why this dialogue is so necessary. According to EJI Founder/Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, "We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it." Through extensive research, the project discovered that more than 4,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950; a public act of terror designed to reestablish white supremacy, suppress civil rights and instill fear throughout Black communities.

Sadly, most states have no memorials to these victims. This gives added poignancy to the striking 35 mm visuals for "Strange Fruit." Ghostly guitar and ominous percussion effectively convey a sense of dread. At first glance, a breathtaking Ms. Day provides stark contrast, looking like a bohemian angel with magnolias strewn throughout a halo of curls (a nod to both Ms. Holiday and the song's lyrics). A closer look reveals shackled hands, a powerful statement further punctuated by her mournful vocals which provide a spellbinding backdrop for the camera's scenic narrative. The idyllic locations turn out to be a chilling tribute to the lives that were lost in the very same spots.

"Inspired music has the power to expose and confront injustice differently than research, data and words alone.  It can heal and uplift us, it's critical for human rights. Justice work needs a soundtrack that inspires the struggle...” - Bryan Stevenson

View the aching visuals for Andra Day's "Strange Fruit" below and learn more about Lynching in America via the project's website.

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