It seems only fitting that in just three days into Black History Month, Andra Day has hit an all-time high note. For her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the Lee Daniel’s biopic, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, the singer turned actress received two Golden Globe nominations including Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama and Best Original Song, “Tigress and Tweed.”
“Gratitude. God is great. No other words can describe how I feel,” she wrote in a statement after the nominees were announced Wednesday morning. “Grateful to Lee, SLP, Tasha, Thom, my co-stars, the entire cast and production, to Hulu, and the whole team that believes and is working tirelessly for this. Thank you to the voters, outlets and fans that support us and Billie. Y’all are a big blessing.”
The film is based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari and follows the late singer, also known as “Lady Day,” during her career as she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation. It debuts on Hulu on February 26.
At Sundance’s third annual Women Breaking Barriers, the 36-year-old admitted she initially turned down the role fearing she didn’t have what it takes to play Holiday, whom she considered her idol.
“I was nervous, terrified, said ‘no’ multiple times,” she told the panel hosted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. “I didn’t want to dishonor her legacy. I wanted it to be great if I was going to do it. I didn’t want to retell ‘Lady Sings the Blues.’ Diana Ross gives an incredible performance.”
But once she met with director Daniels, who is the first African-American film producer to solely produce an Oscar-winning film, she was persuaded her to honor the revolutionary jazz singer.
“She was truly the early godmother of civil rights,” said Day. “She was public enemy number one, integrating audiences. She knew racial terror in America, it was a virtual genocide. The idea of vindicating her legacy became more enticing, with a lot of prayer.”
Day was also recognized this week as the Special Honoree Award at the Critics Choice Association’s third annual Celebration of Black Cinema which recognizes actors, producers, and directors for their work this season and their ongoing commitment to telling Black stories on film.
“This was such a paradigm shifting moment in my life and I’m forever changed by this and transformed by this,” she said accepting the honor at the virtual event. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life.
Holiday died in 1959 at just 44 years old but, among her artistic achievements, she’s also remembered for her contribution to the civil rights movement. Her rendition of the song “Strange Fruit” — a song based on a poem about lynching — in the late 1930s drew public attention to racial oppression and injustice. When her label, Columbia Records, refused to record and distribute the song, she recorded it with Commodore Records. It became the great civil rights protest song, propelling the movement.
Despite The United States vs. Billie Holiday being her first major film role, the San Diego-native — real name Cassandra Monique Batie — has been making waves in the music industry for years, not only using her voice to sing but as an activist for the Black community.
After the release of her studio album, Cheers to the Fall, NPR‘s Katie Presley said Day’s voice has “Eartha Kitt’s unflappable confidence, Amy Winehouse’s effortless grasp of classic jazz, Billie Holiday’s access to raw emotion and Adele’s range and pop sensibility.” The album’s single, “Rise Up,” became an unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement She said she wrote the Grammy-nominated song as a reminder to herself to persevere, “to stand up because if you can stand up then you can take the next step, if you can take the next step, you can take the one after that.”
Using her inspirational voice, Day performed at The White House, on A&E’s live special, Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America, an ESPN special during Black History Month and on the second day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, following immediately after a moving address by Mothers of the Movement, a group of Black mothers who had lost a child through encounters with police and gun violence. Day also appeared on the Oscar-nominated song, “Stand Up for Something,” with rapper Common and performed with the Baltimore Children’s Choir for the opening musical performance at the March for Our Lives rally against gun violence in Washington, D.C. in 2018.
“The artists that I admired when I was young and who I was exposed to at school—artists like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday… They use[d] their platforms to talk about race. I don’t have to worry about coming off stage and someone, most likely, won’t try to physically harm me,” she told Jezebel. “When Nina was talking about it, she could walk off stage and expect that somebody might be there to harm her.”
“Being inspired by artists like that, it’s not just a decision,” she added. “I think it’s a driving force inside me, to not do music just for myself, but to do it because you have a platform and a you have a responsibility.”
Most recently, she gave a goosebump-producing performance of “Rise Up” overlooking the Black Lives Matter mural in Hollywood on the morning of Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration, part of the Parade Across America virtual event.
“I’m just, I’m happy to be a part of this, not just this moment in history but to be able to celebrate it,” she told TZR.