'Billie Was a Black Woman' Complexifies the Legendary Jazz Artist Who Was Ahead of Her Time
Rebecca Carroll's new Audible Original podcast challenges stereotypes set against Black women and Black bodies through the lens of Billie Holiday's extraordinary, tumultuous, and beautiful life.
April 14, 2021
Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.
Abby West: Hi, I'm your Audible editor, Abby West, and I am delighted to be here today with author, and recently crowned cultural icon on Black culture, critic Rebecca Carroll to talk about her new podcast, Billie Was a Black Woman. Rebecca, welcome.
Rebecca Carroll: Thank you so much. As you were saying that, I wanted to do the high knee that Regina did behind Andra Day.
RC: Thank you. Thank you very much for that delightful intro.
AW: You're very welcome. For folks who don't know why we're kiking here about her cultural icon status, Rebecca also has a memoir called Surviving the White Gaze and was recently on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, in which he definitely crowned her cultural icon, to which I plus one. We're going to talk today about Billie Was a Black Woman, a new Audible Original podcast that is looking at Black womanhood through the prism of the life of the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. It's a four-part series that really explores her life in a way that, I have to say, we've never really looked at before. And yes, it is in partnership with the Lee Daniels film The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and that was an opening to have this exploration, but I want to know what made you gravitate to exploring Billie Holiday's life.
RC: As soon as I was approached about the project, the very first thing I thought was, "This is a moment for Black women." And it's a moment to not just be in the moment, but to build on the moment. I'm always looking to find ways to push back, and shatter, and analyze, and complexify, to use Dr. Angela Davis's words, the experience of Black women. So the first thing I thought was, "Okay, four episodes dealing directly slash indirectly with the four main stereotypes that we are strapped with." I think I said in another interview, "Tethered to our tropes, we go through our lives." The Mammy, the Sapphire, the Jezebel, the Matriarch. And they all come together in this... The expectation of endurance, and resilience, and strength, and the strong Black woman, the angry Black woman.
"As soon as I was approached about the project, the very first thing I thought was, "This is a moment for Black women.""
I just thought it would be really interesting to, with those in mind, to have four conversations that explore aspects of Billie's lives that would also simultaneously address those stereotypes. One of my favorite things that Andra Day says is that "Billie Holiday was 2020 functioning in 1939," which is to say, Black women are always functioning in the era that we are in. We are functioning, we are not just resilient, we are ceaselessly reinventing ourselves, and self-creating.
And so, it was just about finding as broad a scope of voices to address these aspects of Black womanhood and through the dynamic of Billie's complexity, because we only ever hear about her as this tragic figure. And she just was not tragic to my mind. I really push against that. It was a wonderful opportunity to revisit her work and revisit that feeling you feel when you first hear that... It's almost indescribable. I think I said in the Andra Day episode, we were both trying to describe, it's like creepy almost, when you feel like, like “Whoa, did I hear that right?”
AW: It's insightful. It just cuts into you when you listen to it a certain way. I've, in the last three years, introduced a number of people to "Strange Fruit" who just were not familiar with her work, her body of work in general, but that song and the significance before. And that's what I love about this moment, is getting to have this exploration where it's resurfacing something that was so important, but didn't get its due. I've had so many people just say, "Well, she was a drug addict." It reminds me of the fact that we're changing our language even around enslaved people versus slaves. It's not the entirety of their personality.
RC: Yeah, I'm really interested in broadening the interpretation of that idea of being a drug addict. As you know, and in the movie, and also if you have researched her, she was a target, she was targeted by the government, her addiction was criminalized. Even if you just say she was a drug addict, it comes with all these ramifications that she had nothing to do with. And so her relationship with drugs and alcohol is something that we don't know, we don't actually know, which is what I tried to do in the podcast, is bring in other sister folk, Ntozake Shange and Toni Morrison and June Jordan. In terms of how at various points we are examining, reinventing, getting whatever good there is to get, all these inroads, remarkable assessments of how we manage and navigate as Black women in America.
AW: Love that. Earlier you'd mentioned Dr. Davis, Angela Davis, and I want to talk about the voices you turn to, to have this exploration. How did you choose this amazing lineup of interviews?
RC: Obviously, Dr. Davis, Dr. Angela Davis is an icon and a revolutionary, and in terms of the audio, or just the sound, the tenor of her voice is something you want to listen to pretty much endlessly. But I also wanted to talk with her specifically about bodies, because she is so connected to her body in a way that is not what you would anticipate. Here is a woman who survived being hounded also by the government, and being in prison, and having her body denigrated, and dehumanized, but also carrying it with her. Every time you see her in archival footage, her body is this towering force and she leads with it, and she understands it.
And so I wanted to hear from her about the ways in which Billie also did that with her body, she defied the expectation of being a chanteuse or of wiggling or performing and she just stood in her body. It was like choosing folks that would have something interesting and unexpected. So talking with Mariah [Carey] about artistry was expected, but hearing her talk about the ways in which she had to come into her identity as a Black woman artist was not expected. And that's always what I'm looking for anyway in interviews, and material, and the work, and the projects that I do, is something wherein you experience it in that moment.
AW: I love that. Can you share the other two names of your interviews?
RC: Andra Day, who gives an absolutely stunning performance in the film. Obviously, at this point we know she won a Golden Globe, almost definitely will win the Oscar. Deserved. And then Laverne Cox, who I asked to talk about what it feels like to be a strong Black woman. And it was such a beautiful, magnificent, sweet, wonderful conversation. And that's the last episode. I loved that conversation.
AW: I have to say that I'm so glad that you made that choice, given all the TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] conversation going on, and the legal and legislative challenges to really embracing trans brothers sisters into our regular spaces and making a callout. So having that moment, I feel like, is going to be very important for a lot of folks to embrace the conversation on its merits.
RC: She just exudes joy as a Black woman. Having come into my Black womanness, obviously, I've just written this memoir called Surviving the White Gaze, there was just a kinship between us that was really lovely. And I just think that there are more... Obviously, there's more than one way to be Black, there's more than one way to be a Black woman, and so it wasn't even a question for me that I would include her.
"...Black women, I feel, are always trying to not just find ways to free ourselves, but to free all the rest of us all."
AW: I love it. In a lot of this conversation, there's looks and angles at Billie's agency, over her body, and her work. Being told not to sing the song, knowing that it was going to further intensify the focus from the government and doing it anyway, because it was important to her and to everyone and the way she saw it. And the complicatedness of her life and with her body, having that conversation that you and Dr. Davis had, about how she had to live in her own body, given the traumas, given all of it and standing in her space. What did you learn in that exploration around her agency? What was new for you that you may not have known, going into the research and then the conversations?
RC: I think that, and this comes from my own learning experience of writing my memoir, which is that you... I'm very much glad and relieved to have my trauma outside of my body. So now that trauma lives somewhere else in the pages of my memoir. And I think that Billie, every time she stood up and sang, especially "Strange Fruit," the trauma came out of her.
And I think she was relieved to do that, to have it come out of her, so it wasn't just about the fact that she had always sang, and that singing and music was salvation for her. But I think that was also a process of freeing herself, every time she sang. That is where her agency was most recognizable to me, and most indelible to me, because there were so few ways she could be free. And I feel like Black folks, generally speaking, are always looking to ways to express our freedom, but Black women, I feel, are always trying to not just find ways to free ourselves, but to free all the rest of us all. And I think she really did that every time she sang that song.
AW: That's pretty huge. And again, looking back at things and through new lenses that weren't in play around the time of Lady Sings the Blues, there's a different understanding of our lives that is taking place now and giving her a different sense of grace, which is appreciated.
AW: And you talked about the sound of your guest's voice, particularly Dr. Davis, who, yes, I would listen to her read a phone book honestly.
RC: I know, same. Yep.
AW: And the space that this is allowing, and you're no stranger to audio at all, not by a long shot, having been a cultural critic at WNYC and creating one of my favorite podcasts last year, in 2020, was Come Through with Rebecca Carroll, 15 essential conversations about race in a pivotal year for America. What is so appealing to you about the audio format, and what drew you to it, and why are you still playing in a space and you have an opportunity to play in a lot of spaces right now?
RC: Well, I am primarily a visual person, and I'm obviously a writer as well, but what I love about audio is that it offers the challenge and opportunity of creating the sound of a little movie in your ear. What would a movie without visuals sound like? I just love that challenge, because if you're familiar with my writing, I love a description.
AW: You definitely paint the picture.
RC: I like to do that, and so I love that challenge, I love that opportunity, and I also think, it's so intrinsic, audio and oral history is so intrinsic to us as Black folks. I love this idea of creating or building on an oral tradition in the audio work that I do.
AW: Yeah. That oral storytelling lives in our DNA, doesn't it?
RC: Yep, sure does.
AW: This next question is a little bit back and forth. You've done the Billie Was a Black Woman podcast, which is tied to a movie. Your memoir has been optioned to become a movie, and you're also going to be writing on it?
"I love this idea of creating or building on an oral tradition in the audio work that I do."
RC: It is for television, limited series television. I will be adapting and executive producing.
AW: Is there a difference for you in the writing process going one way or the other?
RC: Oh, totally. They're all completely different skill set, muscles, whatnot. I had to really figure out how to write for audio, which was really fun in the same way that learning how to write for TV and film has been fun. But again, as I've said to you in other conversations, it has evolved over time and I am in a place where I don't feel intimidated by new mediums, but just excited. It takes a minute. For sure, when I started writing my memoir, I was like, "Okay, I'm ready. Ready to go." And then I sat down to write it and I was like, "I have no idea what I'm doing." And it was the added bigness and intensity of it, being my personal story. But doing Billie and doing the adaptation of the book, which is a different thing altogether, it's not sort of the truth truth, when you start to do it for television. But that's just fun, that's really fun.
AW: Do you have any aspirations around fiction?
RC: Interesting. Yes. Especially after coming off of this memoir, which has just been super gratifying and I'm so proud of it, but I also am looking forward to playing around with... Because memoir writing is, again, it's not just stringing together memories, there's a real... It is like writing a novel. It has to have a narrative arc. And so I feel like now that I've, not necessarily mastered it, but know how to do it, I can apply that to fiction writing, and that's fun to think about.
AW: Well, that's one of the things I, and your fan base we'll call ourselves, really love about you, just being open to different explorations, whether it's yourself or looking at our culture and entertainment this way. I can't wait for more people to hear Billie Was a Black Woman. It's going to be great. Thanks so much, Rebecca.
RC: Yay. Me too. Thank you, Abby.