Andra’s Day in Filming BilIie’s Holiday and the Enduring Power of ‘Strange Fruit’: NPR


Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day, in screenshot from The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

Takashi Seda / Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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Takashi Seda / Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day, in screenshot from The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

Takashi Seda / Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The song “Strange Fruit” was written by a guy named Abel Meeropol in the 1930s – but it will forever be associated with Billie Holiday. The lyrics clearly describe the case of extrajudicial executions, and this haunting protest song is central to the new movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Grammy Award-nominated singer Andra Day plays the main character. The role is to star Dai for the first time, but she has already won a Golden Globe for her performance.

“Andra Day” is actually her stage name, in honor of the holiday herself: Day has been a fan of her since she was about eleven years old. The artist snatched her from “Lady Day,” a pseudonym that came from Lester Young, one of her greatest friends. “I love the relationship between her and Lester Young,” says Days, “the amazing, incomparable Lester Young. He called her Lady of the Day and abbreviated him as“ The President ”or“ Breeze. ”Then he called her mother“ The Dutchess ”- well, that’s what I told her Billy, and she always referred to them as “the royal family,” so I like the name “Lady Day.” It’s, you know, a royal feeling to me. “

Andra Day spoke with NPR’s Ari Shapiro about the stress of playing Billie Holiday, and how she initially turned down the role and the ongoing severity of “Strange Fruit”. Listen to the radio version at the audio link, and read for an edited version.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ari Shapiro: I’m just trying to imagine how the kid would deal with this song, “The Strange Fruit,” which is so central in this movie.

Andhra Day: I mean, at 11 years old, even though I didn’t know every single detail of what she was talking about, I just felt it. You know what I’m saying? It’s in my DNA. It’s in our DNA.

You mean our DNA as a country.

Yes, I believe as a nation. And as a people, as black people … I remember being very quiet from song, almost kind of prostrate. All I knew was that it made me sad – it made me know that whoever this woman was seeing, it made me feel anxious for her … I knew she had sacrificed. I knew there was some loss. There was such pain and it was … startled me as a child. It really shocked me

Did the fact that your first acting role was Billie Holiday feel as if the universe had conspired the right way? Or was it all of a sudden your first race was the New York City Marathon? What is the experience?

Certainly the latter. [Laughs] I felt like, ‘Oh, so you want me to do a movie and you want me to do that?’ To be honest with you, my first reaction was actually, “No hell.” I really don’t want to do that. And it dawned on me [Daniels] You don’t want me to do that either.

Lee Daniels, director, doesn’t he want you to do that?

No, he didn’t want me. His manager and his people were like, “You gotta meet her, you gotta meet her,” You know? And my people tell me the same thing. I was going to give people pictures: He and I were sitting in that meeting looking at each other like, “What the hell are we doing here?” [Laughs]

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

You know, to me, I’m a very spiritual person. At least, I like to try to consider myself as one. Thus, it was two things in particular. The prayer was at the end. I kind of remember getting lost in devotion, reading and meditating on a Bible. I was really trying to pray to get out of it. [Laughs] One of these was, “Oh God please God, make this go away!” Instead, what was consecrated that day was scripture about causing an act of great faith. Not to get someone to do something for you, or to make something go away, but to be pushed to weather the storm and do a great act of faith. And I was like, “Uh…” The other thing is to interview me, you know. He had such a need to tell her story authentically, to show her as a multi-layered human. Because it wasn’t until he was, you know, that age that understood who Billy was, in that she was a fighter and her legacy was intentionally suppressed.

A recording of “Exotic Fruits” was released by Andhra Day in 2017, in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative.


So, one of the driving forces of this movie is the FBI’s fear of the song “Strange Fruit,” which describes lynchings in these vivid, poetic, horrific terms. Can you tell us what the FBI was afraid of?

First of all, thanks so much for saying “horrible phrases”, that’s one of the things for me on set, I realized that calling “exotic fruit” was a lovely song almost like a slap in the face of what she was trying to do. you know? What makes it beautiful is what it really is. But it’s a horrible song. And what they feared was that the “exotic fruit” was the truth. It is the ultimate truth, unadulterated, uncompromising. And when you try to continue in a social climate of inequality, in a system of racial inequality – these systems are built on lies, they are built on deception. It is clear that such a system can only be dismantled with truth and light. Expose these dark places, and this is what the “strange fruit” threatened. It was integrating the masses. She was trying to fight for equality. And they wanted a rule system – and it was fighting that.

Today, like Billie Holiday in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Performing “exotic fruit.”


As you know, we 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’m just wondering what – for you – as a singer, this history tells you about the real-world impact your craft and music can have?

First of all, it just reminds me of that is being Strength, did you know? You hear this phrase all the time, it is true, that “music is the only thing that can enter your mind without permission.” But that is being Actually that strong. I think its strength is not just the ability to move and shake things up, but it’s the power to heal. And in healing, things must be moved. And they need to shiver. And it should be demolished or built, you know. And we see it – we saw it during the 1960s, right, with all of this, kind of, a renaissance of artists who created all this protest music surrounding race, surrounding war. It reminded me strongly, like, “This is what music does – it heals.”

Can you tell me what it was like to say, “Your grandchildren will sing the song Strange Fruit,” knowing that we’re here, after 70 years or so, talking about the song, listening to the song? The song lives longer than any of the characters in the movie.

When I tell you, even just saying it – hearing you say it – it gives me goosebumps. It just sat in my soul so heavy and felt – I was so happy to introduce it. It felt like a knockout. I know I sang that song. I know her grandchildren and so forth. The descendants of the world sang that song, because I did it myself. And so, I was also armed with that extra layer, playing it. So, part of me was like, “Billie Holiday sang it to him,” and then the other part of me was like, “Yeah, b ****! Will To sing it! Yeah! Yeah!” [Laughs] I was like, “You’re right, sister. We sing it.”

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