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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at New School chapter.

I grew up listening to Billie Holiday on my family’s old record player. The high-pitched somber vibration of a trumpet in the background mixed with the smooth sounds of piano chords, open-ended vowels, resonant tone, and the entrancing, almost hypnotizing sound of her voice, is one of a kind. I’ve always thought of Billie Holiday as the jazz icon of the fifties and sixties, but it wasn’t until recently that I learned of her real story: Billie Holiday, the Godmother to the Civil Rights movement. 

I was scrolling through Instagram when I saw a trailer for “The United States vs Billie Holiday”, a new biopic film coming out February 26th on Hulu about Holiday’s untold story. I was immediately inspired to research her life. 

Billie Holiday broke barriers. As the first Black woman to sing with an all-White orchestra, one of the first Black women to raise awareness of lynchings to White audiences, and a regular show at the first integrated nightclub in New York City, she was an icon of her time. 

Photo by Curioso Photography from Unsplash

Billie Holiday was well known for her song “Strange Fruit” in which she turned a historic poem about lynchings in the south into a soulful and poignant anti-lynching protest song. In the first refrain Holiday sings, “Black bodies swing in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”.  This song, sung in front of an integrated audience, put Holiday on the map. It generated her most popular album, selling over a million copies. The song is also what turned the United States Federal Bureau of Narcotics against her. In 1939 she was warned by Harry Aslinger, an FBN commissioner (and known racist), to never sing the song again. She was determined to keep singing it, and more importantly, to be heard.

Aslinger believed Holiday to be the symbol of what White Americans needed to fear: A powerful Black Woman taking control of her narrative and raising awareness of racial injustice in America. Aslinger made it his life goal to takedown Holiday and pursued her on drug charges up until she died in 1959. 

Billie Holiday was a goddess of jazz with a soul full of courage and a civil rights icon who is often not given the credit she deserves. Holiday continues to be an inspiration several decades after her death. I will be celebrating Billie Holiday’s life this month by watching “The United States vs Billie Holiday” and once again listening to her awe-inspiring music.

black placard stating on \"WELL BEHAVED WOMEN RARELY MAKE HISTORY\" on white table
Gabrielle Rocha Rios/Unsplash

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