The Issues of Race and Diversity in Billie Holiday’s Music

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1073 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Words: 1073|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Billie Holiday is considered as one of the best African American female jazz vocalists of all time one. She was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with the name Eleanora Fagan. She started singing at a very young age, but her career didn’t start until she started working in various bands and orchestras. African Americans were freed from the terrible conditions of slavery with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendment. However, they still faced the issue of discrimination, racism, inequality and mistreatment. Around the period of Harlem Renaissance – one of the most influential movements in African American history where the culture of African Americans spread and grew – Holiday and many others used their platforms to address certain issues of inequality in America.

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African Americans were undergoing a lot of racism during this time so it was hard for Holiday to live in the society especially since she was a woman. Jim Crow laws were one of the main ways that allowed African Americans to be mistreated. These laws enforced racial segregation in everyday places such as schools, hospitals, hotels, theaters, water fountains, theaters, and buses. For instance, if an African American was riding a bus, they would have to sit in the back whereas the whites sat in the front. If one was ever to disobey those regulations, they would most likely get arrested because they still weren’t looked at as humans. Segregation allowed racism to become worse and with racism growing, blacks were getting burned, bombed, and had low paying jobs. Overtime, many new job opportunities available for African Americans but the only flaw was that the working conditions were disheveled and dangerous. Opportunities for African Americans however, only applied to African American men. Females had a harder time finding work, and were only seen as to have these purposes: stay at home, clean, and care for children. This discrimination was tiring for African Americas. The realization is, through music, Billie Holiday was able to express her feelings and talk about what was occurring this era in order to make these problems more aware.

The first point to consider, is Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit.” It not only boosted her career, but it made the problem of racism more apparent in society. This song is an anti-racism song which talks about a black man being lynched. It was originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol, exposing the racism that occurs in America. Holiday did her own version of the song and it caused a lot controversy which made it very popular. It explains how the whites and blacks should confront one another and not worry about race. Holiday was essential in jazz for being one of the main leaders in establishing how powerful and emotional music can be, using her voice to deliver powerful and raw feeling into everything she sang.

Moreover, though Holiday was succeeding, her career took a slight turn when she started drugs. Later in her life, she got addicted to heroin and got denied cabaret card which made it hard for her to perform basically anywhere. A cabernet card is a pass one has in order to serve alcohol or perform in places where alcohol is served. Although, since she was involved in certain narcotics, it was very tough for her to find work since she didn’t have a card. According to the Jazztimes article, it explains that the denial of the cabernet card “as an embodiment of the institutional distrust stirred up by jazz musicians, especially African-Americans”. This was quite interesting because the cabernet card seemed to be more of a race debate because mainly African Americans were being denied. African Americans, especially in the Jazz scene where making it really big. So, a question to consider is: Were they not given a chance to get a card so they didn’t have a big platform? Billie Holiday did cause a lot of controversy with “Strange Fruit” so, denying the card could be a way to mask the problems within the society.

In Billie Holliday’s song, “Lady sings the Blues” she is really open about her feelings. She sings about her sadness and the pain that she feels. A lot of sociologists concluded that the pain she was enduring could have been the cause of her drug addiction. The pain she explains isn’t very clear, but she does talk about having a bad start. Based on the social issues that were occurring during her time, I can conclude that it was hard trying to make it to the top as an African American due to the racism going on. Additionally, it was difficult for her being a woman because they didn’t have same rights as men during this time.

In final analysis, Billie Holiday was able to use her music in the entertainment industry to address the issues of inequality and racism. In her version of “Strange Fruit, she was able to use her platform to bring light to the issues of racism. It was known as the first protest that didn’t involve people outside with signs; she used her words and music as a protest. An example given in the song is how a black man was being lynched for the color of their skin. This caused a lot of controversy because this is not a normal everyday song you hear. Some people liked the message of the song, informing everyone on how African Americans are treated terribly just for the color of their skin. While others were blind to the racism and denied the fact that there was a problem. In another song, “Lady sings the Blues,” she focuses on the pain that she was feeling which could be linked to her drug issues. This showed that everyone went through sadness and pain and it could be because if the “bad start” for women. When she says “Lady,” she could be targeting African American women in general. 

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Billie Holiday is a legend and she will always be remembered. “Strange Fruit” will always be attached to her name and how she made sure to show the world the problems on racism. Holiday also helped women feel more equal and influenced other black women to show their talent in the style of Jazz due to the confidence she carried. The unambiguous truth of the matter is that, through music, Billie Holiday was able to express their feelings and talk about what was occurring this era in order to make these problems more aware. 

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Issues Of Race And Diversity In Billie Holiday’s Music. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
“The Issues Of Race And Diversity In Billie Holiday’s Music.” GradesFixer, 06 Aug. 2021,
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