Andra Day Honors Billie Holiday's 'Powerful' Legacy: 'She Was Willing to Give Up Her Life'

Billie Holliday is getting an important plaque from the RIAA.

Last Thursday, Andra Day, 36, presented the National Museum of African American Music with a plaque honoring the legacy of Billie Holliday, whom she plays in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.

"Her iconic music, her history, her life, her activism. She really gave up so much," she says in the PEOPLE exclusive clip. "I think people might think this is a stretch because they're not aware of her legacy, but I challenge people to think of what the civil rights movement as we know it today would have looked like without her singing 'Strange Fruit.'"

"This was a powerful, powerful, powerful Black woman that shouldered this burden at the time, before there was a movement, on her own. I don't know what it's like to get on a stage and say, 'If I sing "Rise Up Tonight," it will likely be my last night on earth,' but she did," she adds. "And she still sang it. She was willing to give up her life and ultimately did but the legacy of the song and her strength lived and it lives in every single one of us."

The singer ended her speech by not only presenting the plaque on Holiday's behalf, but also "to" her as well.

"I think that she sees this and she feels this, and I can feel her spirit overjoyed because she truly thought in her life that no one would ever remember her — that her legacy would be lost," Day says in the clip. "But I believe, as scripture says, 'What is done in darkness will always come out to light,' and so we are seeing her illuminated today and that is the greatest honor I've ever been part of."

The conversation featured Day, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty, the National Museum of African American Music's Tuwisha Rogers-Simpson.

"We were thrilled to close out 2021's Women's History Month with this moving conversation honoring Andra Day and Billie Holiday — two icons of music and social change," an RIAA spokesperson told PEOPLE. The entire discussion can be viewed on the RIAA website here.

"This was a discussion for the ages – five diverse, strong women opening up about music, faith, and the things that tie us all together," RIAA COO Michele Ballantyne said. "It was a privilege to be part of it with Andra, Joyce, Susan, and 'Wish — and the perfect capstone to Women's History Month."

During a recent episode of the PEOPLE Every Day podcast, hosted by Janine Rubenstein, Day shared that the character of Holliday took "hold" of her while filming the Hulu drama — from losing weight and smoking cigarettes, to changing her mannerisms and cutting off her hair.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/USi-ppCfxEA

It was definitely a transformation," she said, before opening up about the emotional experience of cutting off "12 years of hair growth."

"It was worth it," the singer continued. "I was happy actually. I actually really enjoyed the short hair. So ultimately it was working, and I think there's just no way to do a character like her's justice without going [all in]. I mean, that's a Black woman in [the] '30s, you know, there's no way to do a justice without going that deep."

Day also lost 39 pounds to prepare for the role, telling Rubenstein that she "couldn't look too muscular" and had to look thin as a result of "starvation and drugs."

"I started to smoke cigarettes. I picked up the habit and started drinking a lot of gin a lot," the star — who doesn't recommend that to others for health concerns — said.


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