The version of Billie Holiday’s life I learned in my fourth grade public school mini-unit on Maryland history is that the Baltimore-raised jazz legend was a troubled, raw talent who lived most of her life addicted to heroin and died penniless due to all the abuse she inflicted upon herself. That same iffy take was carted out in local and national publications earlier this month as they celebrated what would have been Holiday’s 100th birthday, turning her life into #content for newspapers and online tributes.
The Baltimore Sun’s Tim Smith, in “On her centennial, what Billie Holiday means to Baltimore,” skips Holiday’s seedy biography altogether and treats her talents as if they were self-evident, refusing to do any critical heavy-lifting, just quoting jazz vocalist Ethel Ennis, who says, “When you hear her, you know it’s the truth, and that’s hard to find.” Meanwhile, NPR’s John McDonough’s piece is titled, “Billie Holiday: A Singer Beyond Our Understanding,” which again frames her talents as ineffable; he also adds that much of Holiday’s “life became a theater of self-destruction.”
This elementary school narrative looks ridiculous thanks to Johann Hari’s “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” Published earlier this year, Hari’s book details the ways in which Holiday was a target of Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, who focused on Holiday and other “jazz type[s]” in an attempt to punish them for their addictions and ruin their lives and careers. Holiday’s cabaret card was taken away from her because she was a convict, which meant she couldn’t perform anywhere that sold alcohol, which was every jazz club in the country. Anslinger encouraged Holiday’s former husband, an abusive pimp, to set her up once Holiday finally kicked him out of her life.
Maely Dufty, Holiday’s “best friend,” Hari writes, “insisted to anyone who would listen that [Holiday] had been effectively murdered by a conspiracy to break her, orchestrated by the narcotics police.” Perhaps it’s not that jazz artists were self-destructive but that the police were trying to destroy them, as part of a racist drug war then in its infancy.
Hari’s radical and necessary rewrite of the “bad boy” jazz myth is useful to anyone who still idealizes self-destruction or thinks it is part and parcel of being super-talented. But it also shows the insidious problems in the standard school-room version of the story, rehearsed by the Sun, NPR, and others for the centenary earlier this month: When Holiday is a troubled talent whose art is tied to her self-destruction and set up as a signifier of authenticity or unimpeachable realness, it robs her of her agency—which is all too common in the treatment of women artists—while also ignoring the history of police targeting African-Americans, something that continues to this day.
One day before what would’ve been Holiday’s 100th birthday, the wildly popular East Baltimore rapper Young Moose, also a frequent target of police, released his mixtape, “O.T.M. 3: Something Out Of Nothing,” online for free download.
Like Holiday, Young Moose, whose real name is Kevron Evans, has been harassed by the police. Like Anslinger before him, Detective Daniel Hersl has tried to make it difficult for Young Moose to perform. Hersl arrested Moose days before his big break, an Aug. 16 slot opening for Baton Rouge street rap hero Lil Boosie at the Royal Farms Arena, for a July 25 incident in which cocaine and heroin were found at Moose’s residence. Moose was not present that July night and according to Moose’s lawyer Richard Woods’ “Emergency Petition for Immediate Bail Review,” Moose’s arrest was delayed until Aug. 13 in order to prevent Moose from performing with Boosie: “Detective Hersl also stated that he was aware of the August 16 concert and stated that he would make sure that Kevron did not have any chance to perform at that concert.”
The warrant obtained to search Moose’s residence cited the rapper’s music videos (including ‘Posted,’ in which Moose and pals brandish weapons) and lyrics as reason to enter the residence. Moose was in jail until Oct. 27, at which point he was freed on bail. Judge John Howard said it would be “cruel and unusual” to deny Moose bail any longer because of “the circumstances relating to Mr. Evans and the nature of potential penalties,” which included his burgeoning rap career (which would afford him a legal way to make money), issues surrounding the charges, and the two months or so that Moose already spent in jail.
Moose’s “O.T.M. 3” mixtape is fueled by rage over this sequence of events. There are numerous references to Hersl. From ‘Tired’: “Detective Hersl, he a bitch, I swear to God he ain’t right/ Heard about my rap career, he trying to fuck up my life/ That nigga fuck me over once, he ain’t getting another/ That racist bitch had the nerve to put the cuffs on my mother/ Put the cuffs on my father, then put the cuffs on my brother/ He think about me every day, that nigga mind in the gutter/ Looking for some information bitch that ain’t how I rock/ Throwing dirt on my name because I’m going to the top/ The warrant wasn’t even right when they ran in my spot.”
Later, Moose says “jail ain’t cool,” a sentiment that should immediately recall numerous anecdotes from Billie Holiday’s life in which she, like so many drug-addicted musicians, encouraged admirers not to follow in her footsteps. And Moose follows the line “The warrant wasn’t even right when they ran in my spot,” with “They get away with everything, when the fuck this gonna stop?” shifting the verse’s scope, turning it into a broader commentary on police harassment in his community.
But many see Moose, like Holiday, as a kind of thoughtless vessel of authenticity rather than an artist who organizes experiences into emboldened art. If Billie Holiday was “beyond our understanding,” then Young Moose is “simply rapping about what he knows,” as Ian Duncan and Justin Fenton wrote, paraphrasing his manager, Tony Austin, in the Baltimore Sun article “When rap lyrics become evidence,” back in September.
There’s barely any coverage of Moose’s music as art. Even Wes Case, who writes about rap, has ignored Moose’s music entirely, while The Sun’s crime reporting on his criminal charges— by Fenton, Duncan, and Justin George—has wandered into arts coverage because the police have made this an arts story by using Moose’s music videos and lyrics as evidence. But that’s about it outside of local blogs and City Paper.
All of this makes the Sun’s celebration of Billie Holiday even more maddening. If Holiday were working today, it’s hard to imagine a mainstream daily embracing her or even taking her art seriously. Can you imagine Tim Smith writing about a black, queer, drug-addicted, frequently arrested musician like Billie Holiday if she were performing in 2015?
Hip-hop has replaced jazz in many ways, including its role as the form of black music most frequently vilified. On “O.T.M. 3” Moose displays a Holiday-like quality to taking popular songs and making them into something more personal and rarefied. On a freestyle over Rich Gang’s ‘Lifestyle,’ an exuberant, warbling hit that dozens of rappers have used, Moose shifts its mood and tenor into something downbeat and defiant. It is a cold, dead chant where the original was a club-friendly croon. Often, pop music promotes base status quo concepts, but its best participants pull something more sincere out of it or flip its meaning. Where earlier versions of a song like ‘Mean to Me’ take a straight-forward approach to the lyrics, Holiday sings it as though she has actually listened to the words, bringing to it the spirit of a woman who has resigned herself to an abusive relationship. And she sings ‘Them There Eyes,’ as if she were flirting, instead of giving us the permanence that love songs more often perform.
And notice how anti-lynching protest song ‘Strange Fruit’ is a barely-there warble. Holiday sings tragedy the way jazz musicians would eventually play—employing patient, considered bursts of feeling (Miles Davis, who slowed bop down to a mournful pace in the late ’50s got his trumpet to sound like Holiday’s voice).
Too often the power of this restraint is lost by critics who want to see her as some sort of emotional savant.
Young Moose could learn something from this restraint, because, on “O.T.M. 3” you can hear him getting sloppier and more inconsistent. He sounds tired. ‘Bum Bitch,’ the tape’s single, is a major disappointment. It’s got Moose’s almost-out-of-breath rapping style and it’s got a super simple hook that’ll get stuck in your head, but it’s also just a weak “women sure are annoying” song. The video, directed by Abeni Nazeer, is a bit more playful, highlighting lines like, “Get the fuck off my block because you making it hot/ Nine times out of 10 you got a hole in your sock,” that help frame the song as a kind of dozens-derived joshing. But still, Moose can do better.
Usually, Moose is sending a number of ideas out at the listener, so that his thoughts about many different things blur into one concentrated personality that’s smart, sensitive, crude, violent, and angry all at once; in other words, an accurate portrayal of a typically complex human being. Most of us spend a lot more time thinking about, say, fucking or getting high than the hustle that is the American legal system, but it doesn’t mean we don’t think about that stuff too. Very few people would argue that Billie Holiday was only a serious artist when she sang songs such as ‘Strange Fruit.’
On ‘Fucked Up,’ Moose raps about how he still smokes weed even though he’s on probation, that he doesn’t care if he pisses dirty, and calls out his parole officer and Judge Howard, along with Hersl. He seems to be daring authorities to use his lyrics against him. If Moose was not a political rapper before—and that is up for debate—he has been turned into one because of his arrests.
The Baltimore City Police have attempted the 2015 equivalent of taking Moose’s cabaret card away from him. So it is increasingly important for him to achieve conventional success. He’s sporting the logo for burgeoning record label 300 Ent. (home of street heroes like Fetty Wap, Migos, and Young Thug) on his Twitter dashboard, which suggests he might already be signed to a major label.
So, even if Moose won’t play the game he’s supposed to play with the Baltimore police and the court system, he’s willing to play the major label game, which means locate a hit that fits snugly into preconceived notions of what a rapper should be, like ‘Bum Bitch,’ and leave some personality behind. That said, there’s a case to be made that the music industry is as rigged as the legal system if the continued marginalization of street rap and the increased whitening of hip-hop is any indication (again, one more way that hip-hop is the new jazz; it’s being smoothed out and repackaged by and for square whites).
Now, Young Moose hasn’t made anything that compares to, say, Holiday’s version of ‘Autumn In New York.’ Then again, I don’t think Holiday has a song that knocks like ‘Dumb Dumb,’ which dominated local mixshows last year. But Moose is under the same kind of pressure that tormented Holiday. It is tough to imagine how strange it must be to try and sit down and write lyrics to a song or shoot a video knowing that anything you do or say in it might be construed as evidence and used to justify your arrest. On top of that, you’re searching for another hit to go to the next level, so ‘Bum Bitch’ is what we get right now.
The irony may be that the police, if they are listening to Moose’s music (and we know they are), could conceivably get behind ‘Bum Bitch.’ It certainly reflects the attitudes displayed in a video that surfaced online back in December in which the Baltimore Police tased a woman who wouldn’t move her car as fast as they demanded, and called her a “dumb bitch”—a phrase Holiday probably heard from Anslinger’s crew.