When most Americans heard that Donald Trump’s inauguration committee had invited a singer named Rebecca Ferguson to perform as part of the festivities in Washington this month, their first reaction was most likely, “Who?”
No, she is not the privileged teenage singer who brought the world “Friday” — that’s Rebecca Black. Ferguson, who’s best known as the runner-up on 2010’s seventh season of The X Factor in the UK, confirmed the invite on Twitter Monday night with an extended message laying out her one condition for agreeing to a gig that so many bigger names have already rejected.
“If you allow me to sing ‘strange fruit’ a song that has huge historical importance, a song that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial,” the 30-year-old Ferguson wrote. “A song that speaks to all the disregarded and down trodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world, then I will graciously accept your invitation and see you in Washington.”
It is somehow hard to imagine that this will happen on January 20th.
The lyrics for “Strange Fruit” began their life as a poem in 1937, written by a Jewish American man named Abel Meeropol to protest the lynchings of African-Americans. Two years later, Billie Holiday performed her iconic version of the song for the first time in New York City.
The song was revived nearly three decades later by Nina Simone, who breathed new life into the song at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It was that version that Kanye West sampled on his 2013 album Yeezus.
“Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” the lyrics of the song read, ominously. “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
It’s not exactly the “Make America Great Again” message Trump’s team is going for. And it was a surprisingly strong statement from Ferguson, who has spent her time since she broke through on The X Factor putting out fairly conventional pop music and popping up in the tabloids for her short-lived relationship with One Direction’s Zayn Malik.
But if you look back, there were a few signs of political ambition along the way. Ferguson, who is biracial with a Jamaican father and British mother, sang another Civil Rights anthem — Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” — in her original audition for the British reality competition and has cited Simone and Aretha Franklin as major influences.
“Aretha Franklin to me is like the queen of soul, so on one hand, I like being compared to her,” Ferguson said in a 2011 interview with MTV, “but on the other hand, I don’t think I’ve achieved anything yet to be compared to someone who to me is an absolute legend.”
If Ferguson does somehow end up singing at the inauguration, she will be following in the footsteps of Franklin, who famously sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at Obama’s 2009 inauguration. With America welcoming its first black president into the White House, Franklin evidently didn’t feel the need to make an overtly political statement with her song choice — and has even left the door open to performing for Trump.
The Daily Beast reached out to Trump’s inauguration team to ask whether they will agree to Ferguson’s condition and has not yet received a response. We know they are fairly desperate for Inauguration Day talent, but does that mean they will allow a relatively unknown British reality star to ring in the Trump presidency with a song about lynching?