This February, The Current is celebrating Black History Month by celebrating four artists chosen by our listeners. We’ll be playing their music on the radio and sharing features online. This week, we’re featuring Billie Holiday.
I learned of heartbreak when I was 13 listening to the voice of Billie Holiday. Jazz was a genre I was becoming more curious about and I bought her album because I liked the cover: an iconic image of Billie singing, eyes closed, mouth wide, with a white gardenia in her hair. Lady Day was in my room and rattling the very core of my budding notions of love. Her words struck me with despair and every tone she sang of sweet sorrow haunted my very soul. I had no way of knowing her loss as a woman, as I was still a girl. But I understood her sacrifice.
I grew up in the anti-violence movement, and knew the stories of women who paid with their life in the pursuit of love and protection. It was only after listening to her songs that I felt the complexities of self-love and the hereditary suffering from violent oppression. Oppression against women. Oppression from addiction. Oppression from the law. Oppression against black bodies. Oppression from a lover. Oppression from one’s self. Her voice became the symbol of trauma and the action of healing, a gateway for the collective vulnerable to weep and resign themselves to survive another day to fight.
As a young songwriter I wondered how much loss and emptiness I would need to experience before I could sing with enough life to wake the dead. Billie sang that way, with her whole life. She gave it generously, without regard to her own well-being, and influenced generations of artists with her mesmerizing unique voice and improvisational abilities. She reminds us that discomfort is necessary: it means we are alive, feeling people. On the other end, her life was a warning to cultivate the power of self-love in order to break from cycles of abuse and addiction.
Billie Holiday is the single most important influence on jazz and American pop singing. Her ability to survive violence and express it as a black woman is a radical act of power, and serves as a testament to her strength and life’s purpose. Tragically, she paid too heavy a price to find peace and love. If she were alive today, I would want her to know she did not struggle in vain. I would tell her thank you for having the courage to share your burdens with the world. It should have done better for you. Lady Day, may you rest with peace in power.