The SIP Podcast Talks Black Women in Jazz and the Life of Billie Holiday

The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Lee Daniels's The United States vs. Billie Holiday stars Grammy-nominated Andra Day in the title role.
Monique Brooks Roberts — a soul violinist who moved to Denver from Louisville, Kentucky, and who started The SIP Podcast with two other Denver artists in 2018 — watched Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday at the end of February. When she finished the film, she texted the ladies in her group chat: “This Billie Holiday movie — Andra Day killed her role!” 

Within 48 hours, Brooks Roberts and her fellow podcast hosts, singer Rajdulari Landell and poet Kerrie Joy, decided they would put together a panel discussion on the life and legacy of Holiday and the film.

It's a perfect fit for the podcast, whose name is an acronym for both "Sistas in Power" and the hosts' vocations: singer, instrumentalist and poet. In each episode, they have conversations about everything from navigating the world as three Black female artists to handling love, relationships and social justice organizing. The podcast hosts also regularly invite Black women who inspire them to appear on the show.

The Black Women in Jazz panel takes place on Friday, March 19, at RedLine Contemporary Art Center, with limited in-person attendance and a virtual viewing option. Panelists include Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Diane Reeves, jazz vocalists JoFoKe and Kim Dawson, and ethnomusicologist Aja Burrell Wood.

They will discuss the legendary jazz singer best remembered for her recording of the haunting and lyrical protest song “Strange Fruit,” which depicts the horror of lynchings. Holiday began singing the song in jazz clubs at the age of 23 and insisted on performing it for the rest of her life.

What is less known is how Holiday's persistence put a target on her back. When she refused to stop singing the song, Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger pursued criminal charges against her for heroin use. She was imprisoned for over a year.

Holiday's artistry and activism, which began almost a century ago, are viewed as important precursors to the civil rights movement. Many Black artists and musicians, including the hosts of The SIP, continue to find resonance in her life's work.

"Because we’re all artists and performers, we can identify with Billie Holiday’s story so deeply," Rajdulari says. "All of us have had stories where maybe we sang songs that weren’t very popular, but they meant something to us, and we did them for our culture."

“She was defiant in that struggle,” Joy adds. “The reason why the conversation around Billie Holiday tends to be centered around drugs is because white people were able to shape that narrative."

Joy looks forward to the conversation happening in Five Points, “highlighting jazz in an area that was known as the 'Harlem of the West' — in an area where a lot of Black jazz artists came to perform.” While she wants to honor the musical scene that once thrived there, Joy also notes that the performers who earned the neighborhood that reputation did so because "they couldn’t lodge anywhere except for Five Points because of segregation.”

The neighborhood, which has also undergone rapid gentrification in recent years, is a rich backdrop for reflecting on the full story of Holiday's life and how it has been framed.

Says Joy: "It’s really important that we prioritize the fullness of who Billie Holiday was."

The Sip Podcast's Black Women in Jazz Panel takes place at 5 p.m. Friday, March 19, at RedLine Contemporary Art Center, 2350 Arapahoe Street. In-person tickets are $25 and virtual viewing tickets are $15; 20 percent of sales goes to four students at Denver's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College who started the podcast Know Justice, Know Peace and are advocating for their school to create a Black history curriculum.