#MoloMOCAA is our series in which we meet the people who work at and visit the museum:
My name is Mandisa Ngqulana, and I am the Museum Educator at Zeitz MOCAA’s Centre for Arts Education.
I got to thinking recently about Billie Holiday’s version of the song Strange Fruit.
The first time I listened to this song was on Umhlobo Wenene FM (then Radio Xhosa) sometime in the 90s. It never left me.
I didn’t understand the fruit metaphor then, but I came to realise its meaning at much a later stage in my life when I saw a documentary about Holiday. I learned about her sad story and also the meaning of this song.
Strange Fruit was written in 1937 by an American songwriter and poet named Abel Meeropol after he had seen a photo of two black men who had been lynched.
The song is about racism against black people in the American south during the late 19th and early 20th century. It heavily utilises imagery and metaphor to address the issue, the central one being fruit hanging from a tree much in the same way as black people who had been lynched.
The song is truly timeless – it was written in the late 1930s and, with the white-on-black crime we continue to see in the US, it still feels so sadly relevant. It’s been performed by many singers and bands over the years, from Nina Simone to Jeff Buckley, and Siouxsie And The Banshees.
But Holiday’s performance remains, in my opinion and that of the vast majority of music lovers and critics, the best, most haunting rendition of Strange Fruit.
More than the depth and layers of meaning in the song itself, the aged visual and audio quality of a TV performance by the singer in 1959 somehow enhances the dark themes.
Her mesmerising vocals and the understated instrumentation from the band are why this particular performance stands out to me more than any other version of Strange Fruit.
Her abrupt spaces of silence add to the sense of dread and despair in the lyrics.
As an educator, I use films as a tool for learners as a relatable way of bringing important topics to the table and engaging in often difficult conversations.
In this raw and chilling TV performance, Holiday similarly forces viewers to face the issue of racism and its violent reality.
Strange Fruit remains one of the moodiest, most captivating songs I’ve ever heard, and it only grows more so in its continued relevance.
It’s a song that always takes me back to my childhood. Political. Emotional.
Mandisa is an Educator at Zeitz MOCAA. She is also the founder of Omnye Makafundise Omnye, an after-school programme at Nyanga Library focusing on book clubs, art classes, film literacy, and podcast production.