Donald Trump has had a heck of a time finding artists to perform at his presidential inauguration this month. So far, the set list includes Nashville musician Beau Davidson, an ’80s cover band that only plays songs released during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, “DJ Freedom,” a wedding band, and the reluctant Radio City Rockettes.
A laundry list of others including John Legend, Elton John, and even a high-school marching band flat out declined requests from Trump’s transition team, while a marching band from a historically black university drew ire for accepting. But it was English singer-songwriter Rebecca Ferguson who gave organizers the ultimate ultimatum.
The former X-Factor contestant said she would perform if, and only if, she was allowed to sing the dark, mournful classic “Strange Fruit,” which shines a light on the US’s history of racism in the deep South. Here’s her unedited response, posted on Twitter yesterday:
I’ve been asked and this is my answer. If you allow me to sing “strange fruit” a song that has huge historical importance, a song that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and down trodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world, then I will graciously accept your invitation and see you in Washington. Best Rebecca X
The song, made famous by jazz legend Billie Holiday, describes the horrors of lynchings in gruesome detail. It was reportedly banned from American radio in some places, and later banned from South African radio during apartheid (paywall). Holiday’s own label Columbia Records refused to record it. They did, however, allow her to record it through another label in 1939.
Abel Meeropol, a Jewish teacher from the Bronx, wrote the poem upon which the song is based after seeing photos of lynchings taking place in the South. It was named Time magazine’s song of the century in 1999. It has since been covered and sampled by performers including musician and civil-rights activist Nina Simone, Sting, and more recently, hip-hop artist Kanye West.
Trump’s transition team did not immediately respond to Quartz’s request for comment on whether it would accept Ferguson’s terms.