• Golden Globe Awards

Andra Day, Golden Globe Winner: An Exclusive Interview

Singer-songwriter Andra Day won a Golden Globe award as Best Actress in a drama for her acting debut playing the legendary singer nicknamed Lady Day in the movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday directed by Lee Daniels, she was nominated to a second Golden Globe by the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for co-writing (with Raphael Saadiq) the music and lyrics of the original song for the movie, “Tigress & Tweeds.”
When did you first discover Billie Holiday and how did she inspire your own singing?
When I was 11 or 12-years-old, I heard her sing “Sugar.” Her voice was so different from what I was used to, singers like Aretha Franklin, that I couldn’t stop listening to it.  It was like a roller-coaster ride that felt it was going to fall off the tracks all the time but never did.  Then when I listened to “Strange Fruit,” I heard sacrifice in her voice, it was like she was saying, “This my vessel, this is my message.” So that helped me eventually to really own my own voice, and it actually forced me to write as well, because as a young person I just wanted to sing.  She reminded me that this is the impact I want to have on people, when they hear me singing, when they listen to what I’m writing.
Your costar Trevante Rhodes encouraged me to watch your 2017 music video of “Strange Fruit”, which I did, but it was a very different interpretation of that song from the way you sing it in the movie as Billie Holiday. What does this 1930s protest song about lynching mean to you today?
First of all, I’m a Black woman, so unfortunately “Strange Fruit” is still relevant and it will always resonate. Back in 2017, when I was singing it, I was paying homage to Billie Holiday, to Diana Ross, who sang it in the movie Lady Sings the Blues, to Audra McDonald, who sang it on Broadway in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.  But singing it in the movie was different, because I’m dying, I feel it in my body, and I do believe that Billie Holiday knew that her time on earth would be short. So when you’re dying and when you know that tomorrow multiple people could be lynched, there is an urgency and a need. It’s not a pretty song, it’s a desperate scream, it’s a cry, it says, “Go out and stop what is going on in the nation.”  So there was a real desperation in performing that song as Billie Holiday.
The point of the movie is that Billie Holiday was persecuted by the US government for singing that song, and being perceived as a leader by her people. A black undercover agent was assigned to spy on her in the 1940s, in a similar way as it’s depicted in the movie Judah and the Black Messiah by Shaka King about the assassination of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. What is the relevance of these kinds of movies coming out now?
For white people these movies are revelatory, but for us we always knew that this is what the FBI did, that is why J. Edgar Hoover was so diabolical, and what he was great at was this kind of infiltration of our movement since we started to come together as a community. It’s in our history, from Black Wall Street to the Tulsa Oklahoma riot on down. As a matter of fact, we saw it in the Black Lives Matter protests last year, to make them look violent, to make us look like looters. It happened consistently, but now we are able to capture it on a camera, you can see white supremacist groups, dressed in all black, trying to cover up as much of their skin as they possibly can, vandalizing buildings, driving old cop cars in the center of a protest and lighting them on fire, so that they can draw the attention of the police and the ire of the public. This is a practice, and that is why it’s so important to tell stories like Judas and the Black Messiah, like United States vs. Billie Holiday, to understand the intent of undermining our movement, which is so deeply rooted in the fabric and the culture of America.  We have to uncover these stories in order to expose these practices, throughout the decades until now, to see why some people don’t want our society to be equal, and to move forward.

In Billie Holiday’s case, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics used her addiction to heroin as an excuse to arrest her and send her to jail.  According to director Lee Daniels, her drug addiction was caused by childhood trauma, when she lived with her mother in a brothel.  What kind of research did you do about that aspect of her life?
I don’t do drugs, but I did start smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol for the role, which I don’t normally do.  Lee was a great resource for me, because he overcame addiction, and he shared so beautifully about his struggle and his triumph.  So it was amazing working with someone who understood the depth of what Billie Holiday was fighting, the trauma that she came from.  It’s a travesty that we still criminalize addiction.  It is an illness, it comes from trauma and mental illness, and it needs to be treated as such. Billie Holiday was actually one of the first people to speak about it in that way.  Let’s remember that she was a Black queer woman in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, fighting for Civil Rights, while the entire government is treating her like Public Enemy Number One, because she is trying to unite her people, singing about Jim Crow laws murdering innocent people, bringing this message to the forefront as her public mission.  She was a martyr in the war on drugs, not having the education about drugs, but also knowing that these substances were put in our community by the power structure at the time.
This new movie gives a different interpretation of Louis McKay, Billie Holiday’s husband and manager, than the way he was portrayed by Billy Dee Williams in Lady Sings the Blues. What are your thoughts on abusive men?
As women we are very familiar with abuse, most of us sadly have had an experience with some type of emotional, psychological, physical or sexual abuse.  It actually pains me that, as black women, we’re not allowed to talk about being upset that women are abused by men, but if we’re not having the full conversation, then we’re not making it across the finish line, we’re not realizing our full equality as people. I was upset that for the movie we had to normalize physical abuse, but that was part of what I really wanted to vindicate, because Louis McKay, who was Billie Holiday’s last husband before she passed away, whom she was trying to divorce, was horrible, he was a pimp, and he really set her up to go to prison. But in 1972 J. Edgar Hoover was still alive and Louis McKay was the technical director on Lady Sings the Blues, so he painted himself as this heroic loving character, which is not who he was. But we need to talk about this behavior now because it’s unacceptable and we cannot tolerate it anymore.  We as black women shoulder a lot of people’s struggles, so we need support, and hopefully, we continue to move the needle on that front towards emancipation.