Whose Business Is It? Freedom vs Societal Responsibility - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities

Whose Business Is It? Freedom vs Societal Responsibility

Crystal Zanders is a poet, educator, activist, and pug-parent from Tennessee. She is one of the 2022-23 public fellows at TU’s Oklahoma Center for the Humanities. In this essay, Zanders explores the lyrics of Billie Holiday’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” to ultimately ask the question, When is it our responsibility to care for other people?

Portrait of Billie Holiday. Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In the first few weeks of the seminar, we explored the theme of freedom through the lens of musical history. The music chosen, however, was specific and (one could argue) integral to the histories and identities of the folks presenting in those weeks. This lead me to consider my own musical history and the artists and songs that connect me to my history, shape my identity, and inform my views on freedom. And so, I began thinking about Billie Holiday.

The first time I heard Billie Holiday’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” as a teenager, I felt conflicted. Part of me loved the song, but I found myself disturbed by the lyrics. I was fully engaged in the opening lines:

There ain't nothing I can do
Or nothing I can say
That folks don't criticize me
But I'm going to do
Just as I want to anyway
And don't care just what people say.

The budding feminist in me cheered for the speaker. I have always admired folk who live on their own terms, make their own rules, folk who don’t wait for permission to live life.

Then, lyrically, there is a shift. The lines, “if I should take the notion to jump into the ocean, ain’t nobody’s business if I do…” gave me pause. Is she talking about going on a swim or this about suicide?  Now, I wonder if the fact that she doesn’t specify is an illustration of the song’s central message. It doesn’t matter why she is in the ocean, because her choice is no one else’s business.

The next lines also have multiple interpretations. “If I go to church on Sunday, then cabaret all day Monday” could be the speaker pushing back against a judgmental public, fighting back against accusations of hypocrisy. However, a cynical person might argue that “go[ing] to church on Sunday” and “cabaret[ing] all day Monday” can be vastly different activities with the same goal: to release emotions, cleanse the soul, empty the mind, and fill it with joy.

Therein lies the complexity of this song. Even in the lightest parts, within the celebrations of freedom, you can hear the pain. The song ends on a particularly dark note:

Well, I’d rather my man would hit me
than for him to jump up and quit me.
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.
I swear I won’t call no copper
if I’m beat up by my papa…

At what point do our choices become someone else’s business? Where do we draw the line between individual freedom and societal responsibility? Does the government have a duty to protect its citizens, even from themselves? Is there a such thing as too much freedom?

Holiday performing. Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Billie Holiday struggled with sexual violence, domestic violence, and substance abuse, as well as the racial trauma that was part of being a Black woman in that time in the United States.  She spent much of her life trying to silence the howls of the demons this world put inside her as a child; she died at age 44. I have heard it said that once your mind is free then it doesn’t matter what folks do to your body. I ask myself if Billie Holiday ever truly experienced that freedom, that peace.

Then I imagine what kind of world we could live in if we collectively decided that it was our business to protect the most vulnerable among us. What would this world be like if we could find a way to respect folks’ autonomy while building stronger, more cohesive, comprehensive systems of support for those who need it most?

How many more years of Billie Holiday’s grit, grace, dignity, determination, and talent could we have had if we lived in that world? How many more years of [fill in the blank with name of someone you love or admire whose struggles with mental health, substance abuse, and/or domestic violence stole time from their lives] would we have had? What would happen if we collectively, made it our business to care?


* If you or someone you know is struggling with domestic violence, there are folks who care and want to help. Call the national domestic violence hotline at 800-799-7233 or visit their website here: https://www.thehotline.org/

**If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call 988 to be connected to the Suicide/Crisis Lifeline or visit their website: https://988lifeline.org/