Struggles in Life of Billie Holiday – The Great Jazz Vocalist

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Words: 1025 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Words: 1025|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Billie Holiday was one of the greatest Jazz vocalists of all time known for her improvisational skills and raspy voice. She was born in 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Sarah Julia Fagan and Clarence Holiday, a professional guitarist who left his family to pursue his music career. From a young age, Billie was faced with many obstacles. Her parents’ rocky relationship took a toll on her emotional state. She moved from Philadelphia to poor neighborhood where she was raped by her neighbor. Her broken home was only the beginning of her troubles. When Billie began her music career, she was not accepted by all audiences because of her race. Despite Billie’s fame and success in the music industry, she faced discrimination from the community as she navigated her music career as an African American female who struggled with substance abuse.

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Billie Holiday faced many struggles, even as a young girl. Her mother gave birth to her when she was a teenager and her father left the family shortly after. She grew up very poor and lived in an impoverished neighborhood where she was raped by a neighbor at the age of 10. Her mother responded to a situation by sending her to a very harsh reform school where she was essentially punished for being raped. Victim blaming is still prevalent in our society although it was even more accepted in the 1920’s. Even though she was the victim of rape, Bille was punished by the school because during the time, women were held responsible for the crimes of their attackers. She later expressed that she never fully recovered from this experience and it continues to haunt her. Unfortunately, Billie was raped again when she was 14 and dropped out of school. Her traumatic childhood led her to become a prostitute until she was arrested. She then turned to music as a form of coping. This coping mechanism eventually turned into a career when she began making money preforming.

As she began to build an audience and develop fame, Billie Holiday struggled with discrimination on the basis of her race. As she toured the country sharing her music, she was not accepted by many audiences, specifically in the South. Segregation was very prevalent in the South during the 1930’s-1950’s when she was touring. Despite her talent and fame, she was expected to use different bathrooms, stay in different hotels, even eat at different restaurants than the whites. These bathrooms, hotels, and restaurants were never as nice and could be hard to locate. She continued to tour in the south even though the discrimination was taking a serious toll on her well being.

Billie was also discredited within the music industry because of her race. Not only was she discriminated against by the whites of the south, but she was excluded from her own race. Bands comprised of fellow African Americans would not always accept her. They would not allow her to preform with them because they believed that her skin was not dark enough. She was only allowed to preform with them if she wore makeup to make her skin appear darker. They even suggested that she should paint a red dot on her face to look Indian. Because she was discriminated against by both whites and blacks, Billie began to face an identity crisis due to the lack of a sense of belonging.

Billie decided to respond to the discrimination she witnessed in the south by preforming “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The song specifically addresses lynching, the public executions of African Americans intended to intimidate others. The term “Strange Fruit” refers to hanging bodies, just like fruit hangs from a tree. The song was extremely powerful and resonated with many people. “Strange Fruit” is considered the original protest song as nothing like it had ever been preformed before. It included graphic details of death including the lyrics, “The bulging eyes and twisted mouth, scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” Although lynching was in decline when the song was preformed, it is still a representation of discrimination toward African Americans. Bille expressed that when she preformed the song, she always thought of her father who was denied medical care from a hospital because of his race. Lynching is not prevalent in America today, but discrimination towards African Americans continues to occur in other forms. This explains why the song still resonates to people to this day. “Strange Fruit” was even inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978, almost 20 years after Billie passed away. Bille made a significant impact on the community by preforming “Strange Fruit.”

Unfortunately, Billie became involved with the wrong people and began using drugs. She became an alcoholic and heroin addict. She used these drugs to cope with all of the struggles she faced throughout her life. In the midst of her addiction, her mother suddenly passed which further fueled her addiction to heroin and alcohol. She was eventually caught by the authorities and was arrested. Her arrest resulted in her being banned from preforming at clubs that served alcohol. Her music career was further hindered when the drugs began to affect her voice. Her distinctive, strong voice became much more weak and vulnerable. She continued to deteriorate and eventually lost her battle to addition when she passed away in 1959 from cirrhosis of the liver.

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Despite Billie Holiday’s struggles and tragic death, she made a profound impact on her society. Instead of wallowing in pity, she stood up for what she believed in, utilizing her fame to spread a message against discrimination by preforming “Strange Fruit,” and inspired others to do the same. Billie had everything going against her from her troubled childhood to her struggle with discrimination because of her race and gender. Nevertheless, she persevered. Her story is very inspiring and proves that anyone can do something they set their mind to, despite obstacles. Even after she died, she won 4 Grammy Awards for Best Historical Album. She was even inducted into the Grammy hall of fame in 1973. Billie’s perseverance and strength is very admirable. She has left behind a legacy that will last forever. 

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Struggles In Life Of Billie Holiday – The Great Jazz Vocalist. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
“Struggles In Life Of Billie Holiday – The Great Jazz Vocalist.” GradesFixer, 06 Aug. 2021,
Struggles In Life Of Billie Holiday – The Great Jazz Vocalist. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Feb. 2024].
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