By Jon Wiederhorn
Never one to play by a prescribed set of rules, Kanye West flipped the script on a TV audience of millions when he played "Blood on the Leaves" instead of "Black Skinhead" at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards on August 25.
More than a mere act of defiance, the move was a poignant demonstration that West is just as capable of raising awareness about racism as he is of shaking up people's ideas of what hip-hop and popular music should entail sonically.
The song samples Nina Simone's cover of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit." That song, released in 1939, was based on a poem by Abel Meeropol about the lynching of African Americans in the days of Southern slavery. The sobering lyrics include the lines, "Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."
West started the performance in near-darkness lit only by a small spotlight. When the skittering beats kicked in, strrong backlighting silhouetted West dancing wildly in front of a backdrop of a huge tree. It was the first time West performed the Yeezus track in public; and, as with much of West's work, there was more to the art than immediately greeted the audience.
The tree was a photograph called "Lynching Tree" by British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen. The image is of an actual tree near New Orleans, from which slaves were once hung, and many lynched victims are buried around it. The photograph is currently on display at the Schaulager Museum in Basel, Switzerland.
McQueen shot the powerful image while making his movie Twelve Years a Slave, the story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American man from upstate new York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery at a Louisiana cotton plantation. The film, which comes out October 18, features Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup; as well as Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti.
West posted "Lynching Tree" on his website and Twitter account along with the text: "This tree was used for lynching. Those who were murdered are buried in the ground around the tree. Blood on the leaves."