Will Billie Holiday's hologram reflect the true 'Lady Day'?

Fans are thrilled that the Apollo Theater will bring the blues singer back to life this year, using 3D projection technology. But posthumous holographic appearances aren't exactly always ethical. 

Charles Peterson/Don Peterson/ITVS
Jazz singer Billie Holiday sings "Strange Fruit" during a recording session in April 20, 1939. The song composed by Abel Meeropol, which is about Southern lynchings of blacks, is the subject of a PBS documentary, "Strange Fruit." Guitarist in background was unidentified.

Billie Holiday, the first lady to sing “Lady Sings the Blues,” will once again perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem this November. This time, though, she’ll be a hologram.

Instead of crooning full lineups, 'Lady Day,' as Ms. Holiday was known to her fans, will be a permanent part of the Apollo’s daytime educational programming, in which she’ll talk about the history of the music hall. Partnering with the same company that brought Tupac back to life at the Coachella music festival, the Apollo will use her voice with the permission of her estate.

According to the Apollo’s president, Jonelle Procope, Holiday’s hologram will be able to sing a few songs. She’ll even be able to take questions from the audience, using recorded samples of her voice.

“When people see this, they’re going to understand the vast opportunities that we’ll have to bring some of these performances to life,” Ms. Procope told The New York Times.

Hologram USA, the company behind this project, is adapting a Victorian-era stage technique called “Pepper's Ghost,” which creates ghost figures on a piece of glass that reflects images from a hidden part of the stage. The modern 3D illusion, dubbed the Eyeliner, uses a projector on a reflective surface that then bounces into life via a transparent foil tilted at 45 degrees across the stage. With this projection system, creating 3D holograms “isn’t as hard as most people think,” the company writes on its website.

The company also uses other techniques, such as motion-capture technology and sometimes body doubles, CNN reports. Other notable Hologram USA performances include Buddy Holly, as well as performers who are still alive, such as comedian Jimmy Kimmel and rapper Chief Keef. At the Billboard Music Awards last year, Michael Jackson also received the holographic treatment, joining a full band and 16 dancers onstage.

Holographically recreating an artist who died 56 years ago raises a number of legal and ethical questions. For one, a hologram projects the entire being of an artist, not just the voice and music recordings.

In a 2012 issue of the Ontario Bar Association’s media newsletter, William Genereux writes that there are tedious steps in attaining full permission to use a hologram of a performer: the copyrights in the films and images used, that of each song performed, each recording used, as well as trademarks for logos, and even personality rights.

When National Post writer Matt Gurney saw the Tupac hologram performance in 2012, he was sufficiently creeped out.

“Is that a way of honoring his art, or promoting the work of others?” Gurney asked. “And will it ever stop, or will dead performers truly never die?”

Worse yet, what if whoever controls the rights of a dead performer allowed her image, hologram or otherwise, to be used for things she didn't do in real life, such as endorsing a product?

In the case of Tupac, who was murdered in 1996, his holographic performance with the live Dr. Dre was indeed fishy. If his lyrics were any indication of genuine intent, the two men weren’t exactly friends.

For the Apollo, where Holiday performed nearly 30 times since she was 19, controversy will hopefully be evaded.

“We would never do anything that would compromise the integrity of the artists or the Apollo,” says Procope.

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