Among the high-profile Grammy Awards that were given out on Sunday was one that you might have missed: Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media. That Grammy went to the soundtrack of Lee Daniels’ The United States Vs. Billie Holiday (Music From The Motion Picture). The film starred Andra Day, who played Billie Holiday. It was Day’s acting debut, and she knocked it out of the park, winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. She also sang a number of Holiday classics and also did a few new songs for the soundtrack.
Some of those new songs were co-written by Oak Felder. If you read the songwriting and production credits on your favorite top 40 and R&B songs, you’ll most likely know his name, although he tends not to call too much attention to himself. His discography includes production/writing credits on songs by Nicki Minaj, Big Sean, Jessie J, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Usher, Ariana Grande, Alessia Cara, Miguel, Kelly Clarkson, Demi Lovato, Lizzo, and John Legend, to name just a few.
When he was offered the opportunity to work on music for The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, it was something different: the film mostly takes place in the 1940s and 1950s, and the music had to fit in with the styles of that time. However, at first, Felder had to turn down the opportunity.
He told us in a 2021 interview (see the rest of the interview here), “I get a call from Lee Daniels; we had spoken previously about me being involved with that project, but it didn’t work out. This was last summer (2020). And unfortunately, around that period, my father was sick. And I was in Atlanta, tending to him. And Lee calls me and said that there were two things that he wanted original songs for, and he wanted me to work on them. And I was like, ‘Well, let me get back to you because I don’t know if I’m in that space.'”
“So I had a conversation with my dad and I was like, ‘I got a call about doing this music. I don’t think I can do it.’ And my dad was like, ‘You should do it. This is what you do. It’s your job. So do it.’ I was like, ‘All right, pops, let me do that.’ So I set up a little portable rig and was creating the music. And after the music was created, it was pretty quick because they were just running into the final edit phase of the film. And the creation phase of the music was actually pretty fun for me because as I was creating the music, I got in touch with two friends of mine, Sebastian Kole, who wrote the Alessia Cara stuff with me, and Jamie Hartman, who’s another fantastic songwriter. We come up with two songs: ‘The Devil and I Got Up To Dance A Slow Dance,’ and the other one was ‘Break Your Fall.'”
“So we create these songs and I send them in to Lee and he loves them. And so a couple of weeks pass and they insert the movies into the film. And then Lee sends me an edit of the movie to watch before it comes out. It was really nice of him to do that. So I go over to my dad’s house and I say, ‘Hey, you want to watch this movie with me?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s watch it.’ I was like, ‘These are the songs that you said that I should do. So let’s listen to them and see if you like them.'”
“So we watched the movie. He loved the film. He loved the songs, and he was like, ‘Man, you know, you did a good job. You did a real good job.’ And I was like, ‘Thank you, dad.’ And maybe a week later, he passed away. So it was the last film that he and I watched together. The creation of those songs happened during that process of me taking care of him. And then it sort of culminated in finishing it and playing the movie for him, and then he passes away. So those songs will always have a special place in my heart for that reason.” When the soundtrack was nominated the Grammy, Oak posted to Instagram, saying, “This one is for you, Dad.”
Aside from the obvious emotional importance, the songs are significant for another reason. “It is very different for me from a musical standpoint, but only in respect to what people have heard from me so far. But to be honest with you, man, my interests are really varied, I mean, every musician probably says ‘I listen to everything.’ But I have songs on my playlists that are, deep, deep funk. I have ’70s psychedelic Turkish punk rock. I have Sepultura and Amorphis and black metal songs. I have a lot of stuff that I listen to. So doing the film music wasn’t much of a stretch for me, but I imagine it was probably a little jarring for people who kind of know the music that I’m known for. But like I said, a lot of the emotion and a lot of the vibe of that music was sort of informed by where I was mentally and emotionally at the time.”
He adds, “I’m very proud of that work. Every son wants to think that their dad is proud of them. Music gave me that before he passed away. And I’m very happy for that and I would hope that other people are able to get that sort of that confirmation from their parents.”
The film isn’t just a biopic, it tells a story that resonates today. It focuses on Holiday’s controversial song “Strange Fruit,” and its graphic depiction of the lynchings of Black people in the south. “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.” The film is about how she was warned against singing the song at her performances, and what it cost her when she decided to sing it anyway.
“I think that there is a time and a place for certain types of music, for certain styles of music,” Felder says. “There’s a time and place to party and a time and a place to make love. There’s a time and place to dance. But I think music has a responsibility also to be the conscience of the people that created and listen to it.” He notes that without this film, people might not have known what happened to Ms. Holiday as a result of that song. He also notes that she wasn’t alone: other Black musicians were persecuted for singing songs that were considered threatening to the status quo.
“That idea is not something that’s specific to that time. That has happened over and over and over and over all the way up until now. I think that music is the art form that informs the public in a way that they can understand, because the thing about music is that it’s an emotional conversation. I can watch a news report about a Black person being hurt by policemen or a Black person being persecuted in some way. But when you listen to Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ it’s more than just the information, isn’t it? It’s the emotion. So in that in that sense, I think music, in a lot of forms, can be a more important way to get that information, to get that sense of what’s going on. And I think Billie Holiday herself was really good at doing that. And the only thing that we could hope to do as creatives that were involved with that project, we could only hope to try to match that intensity that she had as an artist. But I think the attempt is what’s important.”