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The Deep Jewish Roots of Kanye West’s Awesome ‘Blood on the Leaves’

Abel Meeropol’s ‘Strange Fruit’ gets remixed into Yeezus in a manner worthy of its creator, for song of the year

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo 13thWitness/Getty Images and Shutterstock)
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Why did Kanye West sample “Strange Fruit” for his song “Blood on the Leaves”? It’s the biggest mystery of his troubled masterpiece Yeezus, which makes it by default the biggest mystery of music in 2013. No artist dared to even attempt to be as interesting as Kanye West this year—other AAA acts like Daft Punk and Justin Timberlake were content preening in mirrors, like parakeets in cages littered with press releases calling them visionaries. Yeezus is a bull and a bullfighter all in one, with destruction and celebration intermingling and often inseparable. Subtlety doesn’t exist in the world of Kanye West’s sixth album, which blasts through its 40 minutes without taking a second breath. Multitudes of samples and influences are present on Yeezus, from Chicago’s current no-adults-allowed drill rap scene to the industrial sounds of ’80s bands like Ministry to any other type of sound that settles for nothing less than the listener’s complete attention. But even with all the Roland TR-808s in the world, “Blood on the Leaves,” with Nina Simone’s voice singing Abel Meeropol’s lyrics, stands out above all else.

The story of “Strange Fruit” is an unexpected one, with roots in the Jewish-American socialism that was so common in the 1930s. Meeropol’s story is well-documented by now—a Bronx-born-and-raised schoolteacher, he wrote “Strange Fruit” not as a song but a poem, in response to Leonard Beitler’s horrifying 1930 photo of the of lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, In. Meeropol’s wife, as well as black vocalist Laura Duncan, performed the song a few times, and it soon found its way to Billie Holliday. The song would keep his family awash in royalties for his entire life and would play at his funeral. As David Margolick describes in his 2001 book, Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, there remains a dispute over whether Holliday understood the song’s central metaphor—“Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”—at her first recording, but it hardly matters: Her voice describes such terrible pain that it’s easy to get a gut feeling that you’ve arrived at the aftermath of a terrible crime. Barney Josephson, who ran Cafe Society, where Holiday performed regularly, would say that “She sang it just as well when she didn’t know what it was about.” Josephson almost never took a special interest in what, precisely, Holiday was singing, but rules were drawn up over how and when “Strange Fruit” could be performed: All food and drink service stopped before its performance, the only light in the room would shine on Holliday’s face, and it would end the night.

How this ended up playing a role in Yeezus, it’s hard to say. As collaborator Travi$ Scott told Pitchfork, “That’s the Kanye West genius right there: Only he would think that ‘Strange Fruit’ was missing a HudMo [Scottish producer Hudson Mohawke] beat and that the HudMo beat was missing ‘Strange Fruit.’ ” And he’s right. The beat on Kanye’s “Blood on the Leaves” is adapted from Mohawke’s “R U Ready,” and the tune starts with the humble piano from Nina Simone’s cover of “Strange Fruit,” followed by her voice creaking out: “Strange fruit hanging, from the poplar trees.” “Blood on the leaves,” Simone continues. At the 18-second mark she belts “Breeze!”, at which point the song makes a turn similar to the one West made “Try a Little Tenderness” take on 2011’s Otis—the listener is now actively aware that the sample is being manipulated, that West is in control here. It expands the full “breeze” line at 50 seconds in—“black boys swinging in the summer breeze.” This intro, a little over a minute, lays low until West announces, “So, let’s get on with it”—cue the levelling dubstep horns, incessant high-hat drums, and suddenly Simone is tossed into a dizzying tempest of sound.

“Blood on The Leaves” commands attention, but when Yeezus was released many people couldn’t believe where West decided to focus it. “I think that sample has a historical contact,” said Jasiri X, a Pittsburgh-based rapper who has jumped on the “Blood on the Leaves” beat by remixing it with a political bent. “It was written about Black people being lynched,” he added. “In 2013 we’re still being lynched. With what happened to Trayvon and many, many others, plus the over 500 murders in Kanye’s hometown of Chicago alone, I assumed that he would see the connection.” If Kanye did, he didn’t bring it up in the song. There’s a lot of confusion as to what, exactly, “Blood on the Leaves” is about. The general gist is that Kanye is talking about a past relationship, an affair in which the song’s protagonist has asked his mistress to abort her pregnancy but she refused. She’s only interested in the protagonist for his fame and his money, the protagonist only sees her as a sexual object. Each romanticize the other at the start of their relationship, but it quickly devolves. At one point, Kanye suddenly breaks into another song, shouting out “Fuck them other niggas cause I’m down for my niggas!” over and over again, like the 2000 song from rapper C-Murder “Down 4 My Niggaz”. The pregnancy leaves the protagonist ruined and alone.

But from there, it gets a bit more complicated. As with anything West does, the song drew a cornucopia of analysis, overflowing with ideas about what Kanye was really talking about. Nicholas Troestor of First Things called it a socially conservative critique “like those of Bill Cosby,” commenting on the deterioration of the family. In SPIN, Clarie Lobenfield described it as “an indictment of men’s inability to keep it in their pants.” Jody Rosen of New York said it was “monstrously self-pitying” while noting that he’d probably listen to it a hundred more times. RapGenius, a website dedicated to parsing lyrics of rap songs, has called in everything from West’s mother to 19th-century Irish poet Thomas Moore. MTV interviewed Prof. Craig Werner of the Afro-American Studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who compared the song to the concept of re-memory established by Toni Morrison, a call-and-response with Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, C-Murder, and the weight of history.

Most of these analyses are well-written, fine and proper (the Thomas Moore one is a stretch), but none of them look at “Blood on the Leaves” within the context of the rest of the album. One of the things that puts Yeezus so above any other album this year is how it works as a whole, with each track speaking to and informing the others. The album’s 10 tracks can be split into two categories that can be named after its third and fourth tracks, respectively: “I Am a God” and “New Slaves”—wherein lie the feelings of absolute invincibility and being brought down to Earth by everything imaginable, from racism to liquor. On the song “New Slaves,” the album’s most openly political track, West intones:

I wear my heart on the sleeve
I know that we the new slaves
I see the blood on the leaves
I see the blood on the leaves
I see the blood on the leaves
I know that we the new slaves
I see the blood on the leaves

The ACLU took note of “New Slaves,” pointing out West’s attacks on the Corrections Corporation of America, a company that owns and manages prisons and detention centers. In one place, West uses Meeropol and Holliday’s version of the song to present a political point about private prisons and institutional racism, and in another he sets it up as a background for a man left isolated and alone. The songs are separated by nearly eight minutes, letting the phrase rest in the listener’s mind before jumping out again. In both places he forces you to hear it again and again, until the song is stuck in your mind. Kanye never lets the lynchings of “Strange Fruit” lose their power on Yeezus, but he uses that anger to force his protagonists to examine themselves and their surroundings. In writing about another repetitious use of imagery, in Sylvia Plath’s 1962 poem “Daddy,” Katie Rophie has noted “a poem of disguises, of masks slipping, of Nazis turning into vampires, English into German, Jews into Gypsies, and it may be too literal to confine it to its more obvious subject matter.” There’s a similar evolution in Yeezus. Pain morphs from destroyed lives to destroyed marriages and back again. West celebrates plenty on Yeezus, but he keeps “Strange Fruit” in his ear, much as during a triumphant parade a Roman general would be reminded by his slave, “Memento mori.”

Plath and West share another thing, of course: haters. Socialist literary critic Irving Howe described the use of Nazi imagery in “Daddy” “monstrous, utterly disproportionate,” and one need only peek their heads into popular social media today to find people calling Kanye a bigheaded fool who forgot that people only like those good beats he used to make and saying should just keep on doing that. But he refuses and has created Yeezus, an album with astonishing highs and few pretty dumb moments as well. But on “Blood on the Leaves” he forges into new territory, refusing to blink or stutter. At a time when shiny, happy Silicon Valley types form semi-ironic breakdance circles and call themselves rock stars, at a time when moronic YouTube gimmicks extolling “gleeful pranksterism” are becoming certified gold singles, Kanye released “Blood on the Leaves,” with shimmering horns heralding despair and solitude. It’s worth fighting over, it’s worth getting angry. In doing so, it lives up to Meeropol’s legacy. No other song in 2013 could hope to achieve such a goal.

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The Deep Jewish Roots of Kanye West’s Awesome ‘Blood on the Leaves’

Abel Meeropol’s ‘Strange Fruit’ gets remixed into Yeezus in a manner worthy of its creator, for song of the year

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