Kanye. He'll surprise you. His sixth album, Yeezus, was released in June, and it's a surprising blend of styles like techno, synth, soul, and industrial. The album stubbornly defies being classified simply as "hip hop," just as stubbornly as Kanye refuses to open doors for his lady.
In this album, Kanye makes another unpredictable move by sampling Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit" in his track "Blood On the Leaves."
The song opens with Simone's haunting lyrics: "Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Blood on the leaves. . ."
While you may have read this line and thought nothing of it, there's actually an amazing backstory to these lyrics and the song he borrows from. Surely Kanye, with his impeccable taste, knows the astonishing history of this sample?
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Though Kanye borrows from Nina Simone's 1965 version of "Strange Fruit," the song was originally sung by Billie Holiday in 1939 in reaction to lynchings. Abel Meeropol actually wrote the poem "Strange Fruit" that Billie Holiday used as lyrics. Meeropol was inspired by a photograph of the lynching of two young African-American men who had been arrested for armed robbery and murder, but not yet tried. The photograph of the lynching haunted him for days, and he wrote:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
More fascinating still, the man who wrote these words, Abel Meeropol, has a direct connection to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. After the couple was found guilty of selling atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, they were executed by electric chair in 1953. They left behind 2 young children, Robert, 6 and Michael, 10. Because it was the height of McCarthyism, no one - not even family members - would take the boys, so Abel and his wife adopted them.
This incredible story finds its counterpart in today's headlines, as Edward Snowden seeks asylum in Russia. And likewise, the circumstances that inspired his original poem, written 80 years ago, resonate today in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict.
It's intriguing to find all of these current ties to the history of "Strange Fruit" today, and it's not surprising that the song has since come to stand for social injustice. It encompasses so much that is troubling in the United States, but is tempered with compassion as it quietly bears witness to our history. Smack-dab in the middle of Kanye's other songs like "Black Skinhead" and "New Slave," he seems to be invoking these themes on purpose. All while his song "Blood on the Leaves" is, ostensibly, about a break-up, groupies, conspicuous consumption, and drugs.
The rich history surrounding the original "Strange Fruit" and Kanye's decision to sample it blows me away. And in true Kanye-style, he steps up to the plate with his trademark ego and re-appropriates this song for his own social commentary. It's safe to say he's standing on the shoulders of giants with this one.
-By Kacy Faulconer
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