July 18, 2016

Nina Simone - Strange Fruit

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.
A poem inspired by an iconic photograph of two lynched men in 1930s Indiana becomes the song of the century, covered by one of the best voices of the 20th century and ends up being sampled on a song about fame, drugs, cheating “bitches” and money. This is the story of how Nina Simone’s rendition of Strange Fruit from Pastel Blues ended up on Kanye’s Blood on the Leaves, an effort from his sixth solo album Yeezus.
She Instagram herself like #BadBitchAlert
He Instagram his watch like #MadRichAlert
He only wanna see that ass in reverse
Two-thousand-dollar bag with no cash in your purse

Abel Meeropol, the Jewish New York City English teacher behind the pseudonym Lewis Allan, first published the poem Bitter Fruit in a 1937 issue of a teachers’ union publication. A social activist, Meeropol was disturbed by the continuation of racism in America and got inspiration for his poem from a photograph that haunted him “for days”. The photograph taken by Lawrence Beitler depicted two African American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, lynched by a mob in Marion, Indiana just a few years earlier.

Three men, the two aforementioned and 16-year-old James Cameron, had been arrested the night before, charged with robbing and murdering a white factory worker and raping his white girlfriend. After the three were arrested, a lynch mob of thousands gathered in front of the jail demanding the release of the three. When the demands weren’t met, the mob broke down the jail doors and dragged the three youngsters to the courthouse square. Shipp and Smith were hanged in a tree, while Cameron narrowly escaped, reportedly saved by an unidentified woman announcing that he had nothing to do with the rape or murder. As Smith attempted to free himself from the noose, he was lowered and had his arms broken before hanged again. No one was charged for the murders of Shipp and Smith, nor the attack on Cameron. The photo would be spread across the country and sold thousands of copies.

Billie Holiday.
The poem Bitter Fruit would soon become the protest song Strange Fruit. It received some attention in and around New York, even rendering a performance by Laura Duncan, black vocalist and wife of Abel Meeropol, at the Madison Square Garden. Around the same time, the song came to the attention of jazz singer Billie Holiday who included it in her repertoire to close her show. Despite the popularity of Holiday’s version, negative reactions from record retailers in the South initially preventing the recording and release of the song. When her record label, Columbia Records, refused to let her record it, a special deal was struck with newly formed independent record label Commodore Records. Eventually becoming Holiday’s biggest selling record and remaining on her repertoire until her death, Strange Fruit was even named as song of the century by Time Magazine in 1999 and rendered innumerable covers.

The perhaps most memorable of them was performed by the incomparable Nina Simone. Simone, who had established herself as a well-renowned pianist and vocalist on the jazz and blues scene as well as in the field of classical music, had first openly addressed racial inequalities with her 1964 song, responding to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and a Baptist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, where four black children were killed. As her involvement in the civil rights movement continued, so did its reflection on her music.

Strange Fruit was included on her 1965 album Pastel Blues, one of Simone’s most memorable albums, along with another Billie Holiday cover in Tell Me More and More and Then Some. The song is performed with her characteristic powerful voice, bursting with rage and suffering, over a minimal arrangement mostly consisting of singular taps on the piano keys. While her involvement in the civil rights movement produced some of her most memorable musical moments, it was undoubtedly a factor in the decline of her musical career. She fled the country in 1970, briefly living in Barbados and Liberia before moving to Europe. During the last years of her life and still today, her music has been on a resurgence and influence artist today as well as frequently been used in films, TV series and as samples within the hip hop community.

Kanye West has a long history of Nina Simone samples. He made effective use of Sinnerman, an African American traditional spiritual song that Simone made her own also on Pastel Blues, and created the highlight of his early producer career as well as Talib Kweli’s most memorable track. Since then, Nina Simone has been go-to artist for spiritual soul and blues samples, from one on the few samples on 808s and Heartbreaks as a sample of See Line Woman appears throughout on Bad News to the appearance of Do What You Gotta Do on Famous from his 2016 album The Life of Pablo.

On Blood on the Leaves from his 2013 release Yeezus, he blends the passion in Strange Fruit with the heavy horns of TNGHT’s trap explosion R U Ready. The production is one of the most impressive of the album and the unlikely pairing a song as suspenseful as it is energetic, making it a highlight of the album. The lyrics has been regarded as disrespectful, as well as hailed as genius for its contemporary interpretation, for the use of a song about the lynching of black men in the South. Either way, Kanye West knows his Nina Simone references, well aware of both their musical significance and political background, and we have good reason to return to their collaborative efforts.


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