Kanye West’s ‘Lynching Tree’ Has Deep, Dark Roots

The photographic still at the VMAs was created by artist Steve McQueen, and its meaning is as haunting as 'Blood on the Leaves.'

When Kanye West announced that he’d be performing “Black Skinhead” at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, fans everywhere probably anticipated a flashy, seizure-inducing reflection of the track’s video. Never one to do what’s expected of him, Yeezy decided to ditch “Black Skinhead” altogether, and when the chill-inducing sound of “Blood on the Leaves” breached the stage Sunday night (August 25), it called for a slightly darker show.

The track samples Nina Simone’s cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a disturbing tale of Southern slavery and the lynching of African-Americans. So when it came time to give his first live performances of the Yeezus track, he ditched the fiery glitz of his last VMA performance — his silhouette danced in front of a large image of a tree. And while viewers may have thought it was just a tree, it’s actually a work of art that has much deeper roots.

It’s “Lynching Tree,” a photographic still by British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen that embodies dark historical themes of “Blood on the Leaves.” The tree — located somewhere near New Orleans — once served as a gallows for slaves, and buried near underneath it are lynched victims, according to the Schaulager museum in Basel, Switzerland, where the piece hangs.

It’s related to McQueen’s fall film, “Twelve Years a Slave,” which tells the story of a free African-American man kidnapped in 1841 and eventually sold into slavery at a cotton plantation in Louisiana.

It’s a haunting image for an at-times haunting track — and it all made for a VMA moment that will be hard to forget. And if Simone’s verbal images of “bodies swinging in the Southern breeze” weren’t enough, the backdrop made the television debut of “Blood on the Leaves” that much more unforgettable.