British singer Rebecca Ferguson has responded to an offer to perform at Donald Trump’s January 20 inauguration ceremony by giving the US President-elect a powerful ultimatum.
Unlike Elton John and Celine Dion, who have previously turned down the opportunity to sing Trump into his presidency, Ferguson hasn’t refused to perform, but rather offered one condition.
In a statement on Twitter, Ferguson wrote: “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.”
— Rebecca Ferguson (@RebeccaFMusic) January 2, 2017
Ferguson, who was runner-up on the 2010 season of The X-Factor UK, was referring to Billie Holiday’s 1939 song Strange Fruit, an anthem protesting the lynching of African-American people across the US in the late 1930s.
The term ‘strange fruit’ refers to the imagery of a dead black man hanging from a tree and the song, which Holiday performed a full 16 years before Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of a bus in Alabama, is often hailed as the beginning of the civil rights movement.
If Trump accepts Ferguson’s condition, the song would make a major statement at his inauguration, especially following several racially-motivated riots in 2016, incited by instances of police brutality.
Trump has previously promised to “take care of the African-Americans”, and in October 2016 laid out, “a new deal for black America”, pertaining to “safe communities, great education and high-paying jobs”.
There’s a good chance Trump will accept Ferguson’s ultimatum, given he may not have many other options with a little over two weeks until the big day.
The mother of three, who is not as well-known in the US as she is in the UK, is a last resort for the President-elect, who has struggled to secure a performer for his inauguration.
“We’ve gotten calls that almost sound a little bit desperate: ‘Does anybody want to perform?'” music manager Ken Levitan told Rolling Stone magazine.
Ferguson is no stranger to political statements – her audition for The X-Factor UK was a rousing rendition of Sam Cooke’s 1964 civil rights anthem A Change is Gonna Come.
Watch Rebecca Ferguson’s X-Factor audition:
‘The ugliest song I have ever heard’
Strange Fruit was originally written as a poem by a white Jewish schoolteacher from New York named Abel Meeropol, who wrote it in 1937 under the pseudonym Lewis Allan.
Meeropol penned the poem in response to feeling “haunted” by a photograph of African-Americans being lynched in America’s South.
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.
Meeropol later set the words to music and played the song for a New York club owner who passed it on to Holiday.
Then 23, Holiday performed it in 1939 at the Cafe Society club in New York.
Watch Billie Holiday perform Strange Fruit:
“She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere,” Meeropol recalled of the performance.
“This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it.”
Holiday had to switch record labels to record the song, but it became an instant hit upon its release. Time magazine called it “the song of the century” in 1999.
“That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard,” legendary black jazz singer Nina Simone once said of Strange Fruit.
“Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.
“It really opens up the wound completely, when you think of a man hanging from a tree and to call him ‘strange fruit’.”