8220;black Feminist Thought” in Billie Holiday’s Music

You Let Me Down – Billie Holiday

After our recent readings about race and feminism, I thought it would be appropriate to introduce black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, author of Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. The chapter, “Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination,” discusses the connection between race, class, and gender, which, she says, are the “three systems of oppression that most heavily affect African-American women.” With this belief, she argues: “By portraying African-American women as self-defined, self-reliant individuals confronting race, gender, and class oppression, Afrocentric feminist thought speaks to the importance knowledge plays in empowering oppressed people.” After reading this, I immediately thought of my favorite singer, Billie Holiday. In her songs, although many examine love and patriarchal relationships, she expresses an underlying sense of consciousness about her identity as a Black woman in the elite/white/male dominated society of the 1930/40’s.

Holiday’s song, “You Let Me Down,” is a reflection of her consciousness of the sexism and racism that she regularly experienced. Angela Davis analyzes this song in her book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, and argues that Holiday transforms this song, which is full of “clichéd images…of spurned love” into a “rupture exposing black people’s status in a culture infused with the attitudes expressed in this song” (170). She also argues that it reveals the “futility of masculinist notions of romantic love” (170). On the surface, the lyrics, “like an angel/ fit to wear a crown/ have a car/ wearing diamonds/ put me on a pedestal,” seemingly indicate women’s “values” and “actions.” These lyrics have negative implications for women: valuing diamonds and crowns makes women seem materialistic and shallow; placing women on “pedestals” is essentially objectification; and defining “love” and “happiness” as receiving man’s appraisal and gifts suggests women’s inferiority and weakness. Holiday’s acknowledgement of these gendered lyrics is evident in the tension and anger in her voice, which “conveys a sense of deliverance and release” (176), instead of expressing sadness and hopelessness after being “let down” by her lover.

This tension may also signify her consciousness of racism, as Davis argues that there are “hints in the shadows of her voice,” which point to “the recognition and coded indictment stemming from the fact that white racist society ‘let us down’” (170). The last phrase, “how you let me down,” sounds more harsh and powerful than the others, and seems to “reach out and encompass a host of grievances, inviting listeners to reflect on loss and on possibilities of moving beyond that loss” (170). Both Holiday’s expression and Davis’ commentary support Collins’ arguments about “Afrocentric feminist thought,” which offers “two significant contributions toward furthering our understanding of the important connections among knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment”:

  1. “By embracing a paradigm of race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression, Black feminist thought re-conceptualizes the social relations of domination and resistance”: Holiday and Davis use this song to re-think and resist race, class, and gender oppression. Holiday’s vocal interpretation and personal experience acknowledge these as “interlocking systems of oppression.”
  2. “Black feminist thought addresses ongoing epistemological debates in feminist theory and in the sociology of knowledge concerning ways of assessing ‘truth'”: In this song, Holiday invites listeners, specifically Black women, to reflect on their own experiences as oppressed individuals. This ultimately empowered Holiday and, according to Davis, helped “awaken women to their worth and the potential the prevailing society denied them” (176). In addition, Davis’ commentary exemplifies how music can be a form of assessing knowledge and “truth.”

Just as Collins had theorized, Holiday’s knowledge was empowering. Many did not, and still do not, recognize her strength, as the most common publications written about her “highlight drug addiction, alcoholism, feminine weakness, depression, lack of formal education, and other difficulties unrelated to her contributions as an artist” (184). Although more people are aware of her personal issues than her consciousness as a black female, she remains one of the most influential jazz vocalists of all time. She has empowered many musicians/singers/rappers to express social consciousness through music. Today, however, there are not many Black female singers who express a similar awareness in their music (although Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill certainly do).  Why is this? Is the lack of these singers a reflection of the male-dominance that has infiltrated the music industry?

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2 thoughts on “8220;black Feminist Thought” in Billie Holiday’s Music

  1. Great Post!! I think that one of the great points Collins highlights in this text is the multiplicity of the ways that one can experience oppression and how our identities are collective and not autonomous. And to your question about the lack of those voices I think that they are there (Carolyn Malachi, Ledisi, Goapele, Elle Varner, etc) but they are outside of the mainstream. And even within the mainstream I think that an artist like Nicki Minaj could offer amazing insights on her experiences within the industry about sexism and sexual orientation discrimination.

  2. Insightful! I have seen the film that has been made about Billie Holiday’s “life”, Lady Sings the Blues, and have always taken the film as an entertaining tragedy, feeling sorry for the all of the misfortunes of her life. But it is completely true that the film chooses to highlight all of the negative aspects of her life rather than her amazing contributions as an artist, which definitely feeds into stereotypical notions about blacks (drug addicts, alcoholics, hypersexual, etc.)
    And specifically with Holiday’s song, You Let Me Down, you speak of how Davis says the critical, meaningful lyrics have been overlooked to be a cliqued love song, and this is exactly that notion of having the “teeth taken our of criticism”.
    I speculate that being in 1930s/1940s America, it was probably not acceptable to openly critique society through music, especially for blacks, so her criticism had to be more subtle, as an undertone. But today, as the artists you mention, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, are definitely in a place where they can more openly and directly be expressive. What is unfortunate is that in today’s time, I feel that although there is more freedom in music to critique our society’s screwed-up ways, black female artists in the mainstream are not taking the opportunity to do so. And I can speculate that this could be because of…surprise surprise…money/fame/popularity. Because, think about this: yes black women artists like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu , who makes insightful music are well known, however, it is the black women artists, like Beyonce or Rihanna, who make music about dancing, romance, sex, partying, etc. who are high esteemed in our society. (Not to mentioned how overly-sexualized these women are made out to be) Those black women (like Badu and Hill) who are making political, sociological statements are not as highly esteemed. This is because the dominant force of society is curbing our attention to be distracted by superfluous themes that do not encourage critical thought.

    **Thank you for sharing some good resources (I’m now interested in reading Collins’ and Davis’ work).
    Excellent post!

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