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THR Talks: Andra Day and Roxane Gay in Conversation About Suffering in Art and Racism in Addiction

The 'United States vs. Billie Holiday' best actress nominee and the 'Bad Feminist' author and cultural critic engage in a deep, intense discussion that included the Derek Chauvin trial and why faith precludes competitiveness: "It just thrashes this idea that you and I are in competition, especially when it comes to Black women."

For the inaugural kickoff of THR Talks — a new Hollywood Reporter series in which an of-the-moment artist is put together with a cultural or political figure for a dialogue that goes deeper than the usual conversation — Andra Day and Roxane Gay plunged effortlessly into in-depth, far-ranging discussion, with THR editorial director Nekesa Mumbi Moody listening in. Oscar-nominated actress and social commentator Day did not hold back when it came to unpacking racial inequality in the opioid “epidemic” (and the Derek Chauvin trial), white supremacy in textbooks and in what American children are taught, and why Stacey Abrams and the iconic jazz singer of “Strange Fruit” share political DNA.

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ROXANE GAY I was watching the movie and thinking about how oftentimes it seems like suffering brings a dimension to art that we don’t seem to find in other ways. Do you think that Billie Holiday’s suffering is what made her such an amazing artist?

ANDRA DAY I’d like to be like, “No, she could have done it without suffering,” because I love her. But of course it’s a part of art. It’s reflective of the times and our experiences. It’s healing, also. I think that music’s design is healing at its core. I’ll never forget about the scripture I read about waters [that] could only be healed with someone playing the lyre. So yeah, [suffering] was a part of her music, because it was a part of her story and what was challenging for her but also strengthened her. But I don’t think it’s a darkness. I think it’s a healing from that pain that really makes art birthed from pain so potent and so powerful.

GAY That’s an interesting way of thinking about it, because we tend to think of pain as dark and we don’t necessarily know what’s on the other side. One of the things that we saw throughout the movie was that Billie Holiday struggled, like many people, with addiction, and at the same time, that wasn’t the whole of her story. What did you do as an actor to get to know her beyond what we knew about the worst of her life?

Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday

DAY I mean, I have to say that my research and my getting to know her really started before becoming an actor in this movie. I’ve been a fan since I was 11 years old. So I started with her music and then went into her relationship with her band members. Then the story about her life, from where she was born, her losing her father to Jim Crow — because no hospitals would take him — and her being raised in a brothel. So my study of her goes way back. And I think in that study of her, you find out about addiction, about mental illness from trauma, the underlying causes of addiction. Addiction is a way to remedy and to cope in a way, to stave off the pain.

And in the study of addiction and mental illness, you have to study the intersectionality of race, and how Black people have been portrayed in this realm, how we’ve been criminalized. When I look at drug addicts and their criminality, I often see Black and brown faces, right? And so then you [see the racial component in] the war on drugs. It’s this evolving thing that you begin to see this huge fractal of oppression and intention to criminalize Black bodies, which dates all the way back to the Emancipation.

GAY When you look at the way in which the FBI had targeted her, and I think went about it in a really criminal way, it’s interesting to see that it’s been more than half a century and nothing really has changed, at least for Black and brown people. Did that impact your portrayal, thinking about how history is also part of our present day?

DAY Yes, absolutely. You mentioned that the FBI did it in a criminal way. The FBI does everything in a criminal way. That is the nature of the FBI. I think that that’s something that really needs to be dealt with in the nation, too. J. Edgar Hoover being the source of that. This was a man who was incredibly racist and homophobic and sexist. So everything was flawed about the procuring of information, of intel.

According to Day, the racism, sexism and homophobia of J. Edgar Hoover led to prejudice in FBI procedures: “Everything was flawed about the procuring of information, of intel,” she says.

We filmed the movie at the end of 2019, so this is pre-George Floyd, but this was not pre-Kalief Browder, pre-Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland. This is not pre-Malcolm X. There is a relevance here today. We don’t even have to go back to Holiday’s time to see that. We’re seeing a really crystalizing example of it right now. The opioid epidemic — considered an epidemic because it is affecting white kids — stopped being an epidemic and became criminalized yet again during the George Floyd case. It became used against George Floyd. We are here right now in 2021, and there are the two different portrayals of addiction to the same drug.

I think we need to change the way we look at addiction and it needs to be treated as a mental illness. And we need to speak very, very honestly about race and justice when it comes to addiction, and to acknowledge that, yes, this has been something that has been used against Black people to criminalize and monetize, ultimately, their bodies.

GAY Absolutely. The prison industrial complex is predicated on abusing Black bodies and profiting off of them. It seems like nobody in power is willing to have that conversation, even though that conversation desperately needs to be had. We can see some of that playing out right now with the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis. I’m all for due process, but it’s truly outrageous that we have video [on Derek Chauvin]. We know what this man did. Why are we talking about it?

DAY I agree with you. We’ve actually got to change what due process is.

GAY Due process has never really served us at all.

Derek Chauvin Trial

DAY Never. So those things have to be gutted. Our nation’s foundations have to be unthreaded so that we can sew a new, equal fabric that’s really based on principles of justice and equality of the greater good. So it’s a difficult reconciling, I guess, for a lot of people.

GAY Do you think it’s possible for us to get to this place where we rethink justice and really unravel a lot of the foundations of this country?

DAY I have to believe it’s possible. That comes from my faith perspective. We have to hold out hope for those triumphs and victories. I see a lot of hope in the younger generation. I think truth is going to be a huge, huge part of that. The reason this Billie Holiday story is resonating with people so much is that she represented truth. “Strange Fruit,” the song, represented truth in a system that is built on deception and suppressing the narrative. If it’s built on lies, truth [is] probably the only thing that can dismantle it.

GAY It was clear that truth is definitely dangerous because of the ways that the United States tried to suppress the song. She had this streak of social justice in her and was interested in using art for political ends. Why do you think it’s taken so long for us to recognize that she used her music to fight for the greater good?

DAY It’s taken so long because it was meant to never be known. This has everything to do with controlling narrative — this is what Hoover did, what [FBI agent] Harry J. Anslinger did. Billie Holiday was globally famous. But she was using her platform to speak out about racial terror and lynching in America. And she was integrating audiences. She was using her voice to sort of push legislation, The Emmett Till Antilynching bill, which still hasn’t been passed today. So the reality is we didn’t know because we weren’t supposed to know. We didn’t know because textbooks are designed to continue white supremacy, right? In schools and colleges. I didn’t know about [the women of] Hidden Figures because we weren’t supposed to know. I didn’t know for a long time that Black people were kept in zoos. I didn’t know that a slave netted us our independence as a nation, his great act. Billie Holiday was a threat to a system of racial inequality. So we were only supposed to know her as a tragic addict who wasted her life on drugs, which could not be further from the truth.

The reality is, I don’t think that Billie Holiday was stepping in to be like, “I’m going to be a hero of civil rights” and whatever. She was just a human. You hear her talk about it very matter-of-factly. She’s like, “Well, it’s not right, man.” She’s just like, “You shouldn’t be lynching people. People should not be segregated. We should not be treated unfairly, and there should be racial equity.” And so, she was a very empathetic person. I don’t think she had a choice. If she wanted to think as a free Black queer woman, that alone was a huge challenge to the system.

GAY Absolutely. White supremacy does try to keep a lot of important historical knowledge from us. So where do you go to educate yourself beyond what we’re taught in schools and the mainstream media?

DAY Fortunately, we have the internet, though you have to vet a lot of things that you read. Which is another tricky thing because I go test my information against this encyclopedia or whatever, and I’m like, “But you forget those things are dictated by white people.” Even what we would test the accuracy of information and events [against] is all based off of the standards and narrative of the white male patriarchy. So I often see people talk about Black stories and say, “That’s not true because I looked at the Library of Congress,” and I’m like, “Well, that could be your first mistake.”

For me, it comes from reading the books of my ancestors. Reading Angela Davis’ work and her research. Reading Assata Shakur’s work and her research and life experiences. Listening to our grandparents, and doing research on what they’re telling us against things that we know have happened. People who were there, oftentimes, are the things that I find the most informative.

GAY It’s funny. I have a podcast [Hear to Slay], and my co-host [Tressie McMillan Cottom] and I were talking today about how you can’t get all of your information from a single book, because everything is incomplete, and it’s up to us to flesh out the whole picture. So, yeah, you’ve been doing that through that work.

DAY And it’s sort of like semantics as well, right? Just how things are portrayed. Like, when white men commit terrorism in America. It’s just described as murder or it’s not described as a hate crime.

GAY Right, or a lone wolf.

DAY Exactly. We recently just [saw] Soul of a Nation [ABC’s six-part doc series on the Black experience in America]. It was such an amazing program, and I’m so glad they talked about Tulsa, Oklahoma — Black Wall Street. It gets in me when I hear people refer to Tulsa as a race riot, because a riot implies two sides. That was not a riot. That was a massacre. That was genocide. That was a holocaust. We murdered an entire city of people. They were bombing and killing them. So it’s also paying attention to those little details about how you describe things.

Day references the 1921 massacre that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, nicknamed Black Wall Street for its prosperity: “That was not a riot. We murdered an entire city of people.”

GAY It is, and unfortunately, we live in a culture that does not always appreciate nuance and/or take the time to think about language. I’m a writer, so of course I think this, but language really does matter. And the ways in which we talk about Black history, in particular, matter, because when it’s framed from a position of white supremacy, it seems one way, and then when it’s framed from a position of actual reality, it’s a completely different way.

DAY Yeah, I always reference my young cousin. I was taking care of him when he was here, and his textbooks are framed around not just white culture, but white supremacy. That is where they come from. Often, the biggest manufacturer of textbooks is Texas, so think about that agenda there alone.

GAY Texas has a ridiculous stronghold on the textbook industry, and they actually dictate a lot of the curricula children across the country learn, including curricula that try to make slavery seem like, “Oh, it was just a bad day. It was like hard work.”

DAY Do you believe what’s said in my young cousin’s textbook? It says, “Slavery, a difficult situation.” And the book did everything it could to paint the slaves as lazy and complaining about having to work hard in the hot sun. When you see stuff like that, you go, “We have to pay attention to the details, because the details are what’s going to dictate to future generations what actually happened.” So, yes, I agree with you 100 percent there. I told him, “Uh-uh. I’m going to call your teacher. Put that book down. I’m going to teach you history about slavery.”

GAY I think one of the best ways that we can continue to teach young people, people of all ages for that matter, is through stories. Why do you think it’s important that the right people tell stories like this?

DAY First of all, if you don’t tell stories like this, then you cannot actually move forward. You can’t progress as a society, as a culture. You can’t heal, you can’t get better. Ultimately you destroy yourself. It is integral to survival, in my opinion. We can’t grow to racial equality if we’re not telling the truth.

If it was that important to them at the time — to slaveholders on down to the Hoovers, the Anslingers of the world and the Reagans — to control the narrative and to lie about our stories, it’s got to be that important for us to tell the truth. The only thing that can dismantle a system of oppression is truth.

Ronald Reagan, among those cited as controlling the narrative around Black Americans.

Because for future generations, it goes, “Well, how can I be mad at Black people if a Black person helped America become an independent nation — with the sacrifice of [James Armistead] Lafayette, infiltrating the enemy camp and rerouting troops as a spy?” That is such a dangerous act. He was willing to give up his life for people that enslaved him. So when you know the truth about that, I think it’s, “Well, I can’t hate that guy.” It is harder to hate someone when you have access to the depth of their struggle, their contribution, and their triumph.

GAY So the movie has done very well, and you won the Golden Globe. Congratulations. How do you process that kind of acclaim? Are you competitive? Do you want these kinds of recognitions?

DAY I’m probably the opposite of that a little bit. I am extremely appreciative. I always think about this scripture that discourages competition. And I love that. Because competition is very much a human nature thing. We believe that we have to do this in order to survive, that there’s not space for everyone. But the reality is, if we’re here, that there is space for everyone. There’s this scripture that says, “Don’t work as if working unto man,” like to beat man, “but work as if working unto the Lord,” which is a much higher standard in self-accountability.

To me, it just thrashes this idea that you and I are in competition, especially when it comes to Black women. So I’m going to work hard. To me, even when I look at my fellow nominees, I don’t say, “They’re competitors.” We’re sharing the space together, and we’re representing different stories. As far as continuing in it, I’ll probably do a little more acting, but I look forward to hitting the background and doing some writing and developing.

GAY What kind of writing do you do?

DAY Music and poetry. And right now it’s screenwriting.

GAY Oh, fantastic.

DAY It’s new, so I don’t have any sort of misconceptions about like, “I am just going to dive in, get it right away.” Really, I write everything the same way I write lyrics or poetry. I dump everything out, every single idea. Research, research, research, dump, dump, dump. Then I begin to form and craft it from there. So I’m in that phase of dumping everything right now, trying out ideas. It’s actually a limited series that I’m working on. Ultimately, I want to get with a great experienced screenwriter. I don’t need to be the one to tell it top to bottom. I want people who are experienced, who are Black and who are preferably female, but also allies as well.

GAY Who are some of the political or artistic or other voices that have stood out to you in this moment?

DAY I’ve started with the artists of my community. There are some rappers and some singers. Geminelle Rollins, from southeast San Diego, where I’m from. Ryan Anthony, Marty McFly. Just people that are from my neighborhood, Black people. There’s also a girl I went to high school with, Joshlyn [Turner], who has a juice truck. She’s trying to get healthy food and healthy juice into the community. It’s called The Write Juice. So really first start supporting those businesses by making people aware of them. I have people from multiple ethnicities and backgrounds on my team, but really being targeted and focused on hiring and working with Black talent. I’ve done work actually with the amazing Michelle Obama. So I feel like I could just stop right there.

GAY I mean, I think that’s a mic drop. That covers it.

DAY Yeah. To be available for her efforts in what she’s doing as far as educating girls. Not just girls of color, but girls all over the world who have been denied education. That was the Let Girls Learn campaign. I mean, Stacey Abrams is another one as well.

GAY She’s incredible. They literally are redoing the voter repression laws. And what they don’t realize is she can outthink them every single day of the week. This kind of thing emboldens Black people.

DAY This is where I go back right to Billie Holiday. That is the same DNA. That is why they had to shut her up. You know what I mean? Because she is the DNA that is in Stacey Abrams; [the Republican-led revisions to voting rules] are a direct response to Stacey Abrams registering millions of voters. She just did the right thing. Someone said in an interview not too long ago: “You would think the government, the FBI, had more important things to do than go after Billie Holiday.” I said, “Well, that depends on your goals. Their goals are to continue white supremacy, racial oppression, systemic inequality. So if those are your goals, then Stacey Abrams got to go. Right? Billie Holiday got to go.” Absolutely dangerous. I’m so inspired by her and her efforts.

GAY So we’re coming out of the pandemic, hopefully. What are you looking ahead to, as we all get vaccinated and life hopefully returns to a different kind of normal that maybe isn’t as messed up as the previous normal?

DAY First thing I look forward to is vacation. I’m going to head somewhere and take a little bit of a break. Seeing family again, just connecting with people. A big thing. I’m looking forward to in-person, right? Showing up and saying yes, and being present for certain opportunities and things that come along, and just seeing what happens. I’m hoping, as far as socially, that we hit the ground running. And then just turn up. You know what I’m saying? Everybody just turn the fuck up, and have a good time.

GAY I mean, I have never been more ready. This year is going to be the Summer Freaknik. Let’s go!

DAY It’s on! It’s on and popping! You let me know, are we in New York? Are we in L.A.?

GAY Oh, we’re in L.A. We’re going to enjoy the sun. We’re going to have some friends. I just have some lighter questions. What was your favorite book as a child?

DAY You know what I liked when I was young? I liked a lot of those scary stories. It was R.L. Stine.

GAY I think R.L. Stine has written like 150 books.

DAY I don’t know why, because I hate scary movies and scary stories. So I’m this dumb kid, right? Why would I torture myself? As a kid, it was terrifying. You were reading every single word, so it was happening in your head at the same time. I wish I could be sophisticated, like, “I only read Langston Hughes as a child.”

GAY I wouldn’t believe anyone who said that. What did you want to be at that age, when you grew up?

DAY Always a singer. Always an entertainer. There was never a plan B. Although I had random moments where I’m like, “Mom, dad, I think I’m going to be a paleontologist.” They’d be like, “OK, girl.”

GAY What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

DAY From my parents, and it is to not let fear dictate my decisions. Fear is a liar. To not let fear decide what I’m going to do for me.

GAY Lastly, what do you like most about your work and what you do?

DAY I like the people. Yeah, people do some crazy shit sometimes. But again, I don’t want fear of somebody screwing me over to dictate how I interact with people. I think that has to do with my faith. It says, “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” I love loving my neighbor, and I love being loved by my neighbor. I like people, their experiences. It’s enriching to me. Most of the time. Even when you meet somebody who you’re like, “I’m not supposed to engage with them anymore,” you’re still enriched because now you know that.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the April 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.