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You don’t have to believe in reincarnation to know that some people are old souls – they carry the spirit of another time with them. Andra Day is one of those people. She wears her influences on her sleeve, while forging a path of her own. Like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday before her, Andra can break your heart with a song or rally a movement with an anthem.
by Julia Ward
Andra Day was introduced to Billie Holiday’s work when she was 11 years old. She was taken but confused by Holiday’s voice at first. It didn’t sound like the powerhouse soul and R&B singers she was accustomed to hearing. But the more she listened, the more she learned what it might mean to, as she’s described it, “sit in her own voice.”
Billie Holiday had influences too – Louis “Pops” Armstrong and Bessie Smith foremost among them. Her phrasing comes straight from Armstrong, who she used to listen to on the Victrola as she scrubbed floors at Alice Dean’s bordello in Baltimore when she was a girl. Holiday wrote in her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, “I spent many a wonderful hour listening to Pops and Bessie. I remember Pops’ recording of ‘West End Blues’ and how it used to gas me. It was the first time I ever heard anybody sing without using any words.”
Like Armstrong, Holiday didn’t need words. Her voice was so shot through with emotion that every note carried the weight of a life lived – every heartbreak, every hardship, every flirtation and affair. But her voice wasn’t reserved solely for conveying the contours of a romance; it could also carry the pain of a people. The 1939 protest song “Strange Fruit,” which has been called the “beginning of the Civil Rights movement,” was the second Billie Holiday song Andra Day ever heard, and it’s been with her ever since.
Day took two lessons from Holiday about sitting in your own voice. The first lesson was personal. It’s about style and the type of fearlessness that allows you to set someone else’s ideals aside. To own one’s voice is to be unmistakably yourself. No one else sounded like Billie Holiday or turned a phrase like James Baldwin or moved across a stage like Katherine Dunham.
The second lesson was a social one. It’s about living in the world and being unafraid to tell us what you see – it’s about the truth. To own your voice is to own its sound, its personal power, and its political potential. It’s why Billie Holiday could give us “Lover Man” and “Strange Fruit,” why Nina Simone could give us “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “Mississippi Goddam,” and why, because she learned her lessons well, Andra Day can give us “Gold” and “Rise Up.”
Andra Day is sitting in her voice. She combines the personal and political as effortlessly as Holiday and Simone because the personal and political really aren’t all that different. Asked to parse the two, Day said, “I’m a human. I’m a person. I’m a Black woman in America. The social affects the personal. The personal affects the social as well. It’s just a matter of what I’ve experienced – the cacophony of what I’m feeling and what I’m seeing.”
And in that beautiful cacophony, you will hear legacy, truth, and the ever-accumulating weight of a life being lived.
Julia Ward is the LA Phil’s Director of Humanities.
In conversation with
Andra Day discusses artists as activists, from Billie Holiday to Common, as well as her own inspirational contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement, “Rise Up.”
A playlist of Andra Day influences, covers, and mashups
While Andra Day’s music is undoubtedly connected to the jazz and blues legends of the past, she is equally connected to the present. She first gained popularity posting unplugged covers and mashups recorded in her sister's San Diego bedroom on her YouTube channel. With an assist from Stevie Wonder's then-wife Kai Millard, who spotted Day performing in a strip mall in 2010, Day would go from covering other people's songs to performing her own. The playlist assembled here charts Day's influences – past and present – as well as deconstructing some of her most popular, early mashups.
From The Ford
The Flypoet Summer Classic brings together spoken word’s heavy hitters, who like Andra Day, use their flow to express themselves as individuals and as members of a larger society fighting for positive change.
EP 4 CREDITS An LA Phil Media Production Gustavo Dudamel Music & Artistic Director Directed by Charlie Buhler Featuring Andra Day Andra Day, vocals Luis Raio, bass David Wood, guitar Charles Jones, keyboard / vocals Angus Godwin, drums / vocals LA PHIL STAFF SOUND DESIGN Caleb Morris David Wood Fred Vogler LIGHTING DESIGN Robin Gray Academy Lighting Consultants IATSE LOCAL 33 Kevin Brown, Master Carpenter Andy Kassan, Master Electrician Donald Quick, Property Master Michael Sheppard, Master Audio-Visual/Union Steward Kevin Wapner, Assistant Audio-Visual The stage crew is represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Machine Operators of the United States and Canada, Local 33
The Los Angeles Philharmonic thanks the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Department of Parks and Recreation who value assuring access to arts and culture in Los Angeles: BOARD OF SUPERVISORS Hilda L. Solis, First District Mark Ridley-Thomas, Second District Sheila Kuehl, Third District Janice K. Hahn, Fourth District Kathryn Barger, Fifth District and Chair PARKS AND RECREATION Norma E. Garcia, Director of Parks and Recreation and Regional Parks and Open Space District EDITED AT PARALLAX Editor: Guangwei Du Executive Producer: Graham Zeller Post Producer: Amanda Phillips Color Correction: Bossi Baker WEBSITE ToyFight