Annie Lennox has been on quite the roll. First, she called Beyoncé out for not being a feminist. Then she called Queen Bey out for twerking. Well apparently she has a new album out titled Nostalgia (so this might explain all of her wild statements – I mean a girl has got to get her name back in the media somehow) and the song Strange Fruit appears on the album. Strange Fruit, recorded in 1939 by the legendary and troubled Billie Holiday is a chilling and haunting song about lynching. Lennox appeared on Tavis Smiley’s show where he asked her about the song. Here’s what she had to say:
“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.
Well ok, except the song is about lynching. Smiley tried to push her a little bit on it, get her to say it, when he asked, “When you hear Billie Holiday sing that, what do you hear?” Lennox said:
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.
Now, I’m pretty certain that Annie Lennox is aware the song is about lynching. So why couldn’t or wouldn’t she just say that? What’s even more interesting is that Smiley didn’t call her on it. Bold, brash, in your face Tavis Smiley didn’t say, “Hey, white lady! You do know the song is about how Black men like me were lynched all through the Deep South?” He should have said that. Or something like that. This could have provided for an interesting discussion and even some teachable moments as the two dialogued about lynchings of the past and the injustices of the present. But they didn’t. Instead Smiley allowed Lennox to ramble on and on about what the song is about when that’s not what the song is about.
Of course Twitter is having a field day with this one. The jokes and the jabs won’t stop. And at the core of this is the concern that Lennox has whitewashed history. Not only that, she’s tried to bring everyone’s problems into the mix when explaining the meaning of this song. No ma’am. No. Strange Fruit has a very distinct place in history because it’s raw and powerful and called out America’s misbehavior in a bold and haunting way. Holiday brings all that she had experienced as a Black woman in the music industry, traveling South to perform with an all white band, etc. to that song, she lays out her pain on that song, not just hers but also the pain of the Black men who were treated as less than human for too many years. For Lennox to not mention any of that reality and history is not only strange, but a shame.
Check out the video below.
Diana Veiga is a Spelman woman, a DC resident, and a freelance writer. Of course, she’s also on Twitter.