Women’s History Month: Billie Holiday Fought Systemic Racism With Timeless Music

Billie Holiday was a Grammy-nominated singer and honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, incorporated. Holiday fought against systemic racism, while her charismatic and angelic voice brought white and black audiences together during heightened racial tensions.

It’s difficult to imagine how hard Black Americans fought to thrive and break barriers during the Jim Crow era when they were still being lynched from trees. Yet Holiday, also known as Lady Day, used music to peacefully protest the violent killings of her people.

Lady Day has an ominous record titled “Strange Fruit” which confronted the bloody side of racism and yet empowered and agitated the police force at the time. Lady Day’s musical brilliance was a threat to the status quo and the police in return punished the words of the song more than the violence itself.

To this day, in an unfortunate way, the current climate in the U.S. still shows that many white Americans are privileged with not having to deal with the underhanded side of the police and the justice system. White privilege is very real.

As she went through many situations with the police and racism, Holiday dealt with relentless efforts to take her down by stalking, harassing, and censoring her. The idea of the police trying to frame her isn’t and wasn’t all that surprising as they hated the fact that she was bringing different races together through music. This was documented in the Hulu release, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”

Lead harasser Harry Anslinger was commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics, and he also worked closely with U.S. Presidents.

Many times the Bureau cornered Holiday for drug addiction, and that was flipped as the “War On Drugs” although that war strategically and blatantly targeted and harshly penalized people of color, while often ignoring the illegal activities of whites. 

Lady Day’s struggles with drugs were well-known but the racism she encountered daily was next level. Despite the stress and attacks, she was the ultimate pro, a beloved musician who always had a smile on her face while giving performances.

Her music catalog warms hearts, opens eyes, and is respected to this day. Lady Day once said when she’s gone those who vowed to take her down would have ancestors who still loved every ounce of her music. To this very day Anslingers’ grandchildren and those of their generation still very much analyze and appreciate the brilliance of “Strange Fruit.”

The mannerisms and stage presence of the beautiful Holiday were obvious and many of today’s artists could learn so much from such a graceful and elegant performer, who used her platform to heal the world and suffered the toxic backlash of racism and oppressive law enforcement. 


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