Singer-songwriter Annie Lennox's new album, Nostalgia, includes a cover of a song called "Strange Fruit," which she chatted about in a widely-criticized PBS interview with host Tavis Smiley.
What went wrong? Well, it wasn't what Lennox said about the song that shocked and disappointed many viewers. It was that she didn't say. Despite talking at length about the piece of music, she somehow never mentioned any of its historical significance, or its actual subject: lynching.
Here's what happened, and why it matters.
What is "Strange Fruit"?
Written in 1937, and recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday, it's a protest song about lynching.
The song was written after its author (Abel Meeropol, a New York City teacher and amateur composer) saw a gruesome photo of a black man being lynched in the South and was haunted by the image.
Why is the song historically significant?
It's significant because of the gravity of its subject matter. The type of lynching "Strange Fruit" references is the extrajudicial killing of African-Americans by white mobs that took place primarily in the late 19th-century South and often involved hanging victims from trees. It was used as a tool to white supremacy.
Nearly 3,500 African-Americans were lynched between the years 1882 and 1951.
"Strange Fruit," which describes one such lynching in excruciating detail, has been called a "historic document" as well as "a declaration of war," "the beginning of the civil rights movement," and "the first great protest song."
Angela Davis wrote in her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism that it ""put the elements of protest and resistance back at the center of contemporary black musical culture."
Nina Simone said, "It deals with America and the black and white problem, really. The ugliness of it. That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard. Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people who have done to my people in this country. It really, really opens up the wound completely when you think of a man hanging from a tree, and to call him ‘strange fruit.'"
What did Lennox say about it?
Lennox acknowledged in her Tavis Talks interview that "Strange Fruit was a "protest song." But then she got very, very general with some vague comments about the human condition:
"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.
Then, in response to Smiley prodding her to say more about what Billie Holiday was actually talking about, Lennox went off into left field, analyzing the late singer's life and what the two of them might talk about with each other:
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 40s? 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.
What did Lennox fail to say?
While she mentioned the Civil Rights movement and included "racism" (as the last item on a list of other issues, beginning with "female empowerment") in her analysis of the song, she omitted any reference to the actual theme of "Strange Fruit" or its place in American history. She never uttered the word "lynching." It actually seemed like she was doing a lot of work to talk around it.
What are the song's lyrics?
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
You can't get much more literal than "black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze." It's not as if this song's subject matter was a secret, or could have reasonably been lost on Lennox.
What are some other renditions of the song?
"Strange Fruit" has been covered by many artists over the years.
Diana Ross included a version on her Lady Sings the Blues as well as on her live album, Stolen Moments.
Cassandra Wilson covered it on her album, New Moon Daughter.
Kanye West used samples from the song in "Blood on the Leaves," on his album Yeezus.
Why should Lennox have mentioned lynching?
To discuss a song about lynching without mentioning lynching does a historical injustice to the piece of music, and allows her to profit from her cover of the song without grappling with its history.
Moreover, Lennox said herself in the Smiley interview said she wanted to "give the song honor and respect" and "get an opportunity to talk about the subjects behind the songs" on her album.
Here was her chance to do both by talking about the horrific practice that inspired the song, and she totally missed it.