Annie Lennox, who recently boiled down what Beyoncé does to "twerking" to dismiss Bey's feminism, was less specific though still not quite...right when when Tavis Smiley asked her about covering "Strange Fruit" on her new album Nostalgia. Popularized by Billie Holiday in 1939, "Strange Fruit" is a song about racism that vividly describes a scene after a lynching (the strange fruit is the black man hanging from it). Annie Lennox did not mention lynching in her description of the song to Smiley:
"Strange Fruit" is a protest song and it was written before the Civil Rights movement actually got on its feet, got established. And because of what I've seen around the world, I know that this theme, this subject of violence and bigotry, hatred, violent acts of mankind against ourselves. This is a theme. It's a human theme that has gone on for time immemorial. It's expressed in all kinds of different ways, whether it be racism, whether it be domestic violence, whether it be warfare, or a terrorist act, or simply one person attacking another person in a separate incident. This is something that we as human beings have to deal with, it's just going on 24/7. And as an observer of this violence, even as a child, I thought, why is this happening? So I've always had that sense of empathy and kind of outrage that we behave in this way. So a song like this, if I were to do a version of "Strange Fruit," I'd give the song honor and respect and I try to bring it back out into the world again and get an opportunity to talk about the subjects behind the songs as well.
She's talking about talking, but she's not talking about the subject of the song, which is lynching.
Smiley followed up with the question, " When you hear Billie Holiday sing that, what do you hear?" "I hear a woman singing about lynching," Annie Lennox didn't say:
Well, it's hard to talk about, huh? There is a woman that suffered so much in so many ways from her circumstance, from the situation of being many things, from being a woman, from being a woman of color, from addiction, from an upbringing that was extremely dysfunctional, and it ended badly. And you see this happening with artists, and female artists very frequently, and you ask, "Why? Why did this beautiful woman self-destruct in the end?" What were the things that caused her to disappear tragically at really quite an early age—she was just in her 40's? I've looked at some YouTube clips and I've looked at her face and, you know…wondered what happened. And it makes me sad. And I feel that I want to kind of be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her. If she was here now, we would have a lot in common, there would be a lot of things that we could talk about…Like female empowerment, women's rights, bigotry, racism. What is it? What? You know there's so many things we could talk about, we could talk about lipstick, too. We could talk about clothes. But we could talk about the things that are still going on in this day and age that haven't changed one iota and the sort of pain that I feel because I would like to see a world that could transform. We have so many resources, and when we dialogue, we have an opportunity to make good, positive things happen, but we are in a world of madness and sometimes despair.
On the night before [Holiday] was leaving New York, she told Guy she was going to sing "Strange Fruit" as her last song. We sat at the dining room table while Guy stood in the doorway.
Billie talked and sang in a hoarse, dry tone the well-known protest song. Her rasping voice and phrasing literally enchanted me. I saw the black bodies hanging from Southern trees. I saw the lynch victims' blood glide from the leaves down the trunks and onto the roots.
Guy interrupted, "How can there be blood at the root?" I made a hard face and warned him, "Shut up, Guy, just listen." Billie had continued under the interruption, her voice vibrating over harsh edges.
She painted a picture of a lovely land, pastoral and bucolic, then added eyes bulged and mouths twisted, onto the Southern landscape.
Guy broke into her song. "What's a pastoral scene, Miss Holiday?" Billie looked up slowly and studied Guy for a second. Her face became cruel, and when she spoke her voice was scornful. "It means when the crackers are killing the niggers. It means when they take a little nigger like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddamn throat. That's what it means."
The thrust of rage repelled Guy and stunned me.
Billie continued, "That's what they do. That's a goddamn pastoral scene."
Guy gave us both a frozen look and said, "Excuse me, I'm going to bed." He turned and walked away.
That's a goddamn "Strange Fruit" explanation.