Jazz singer Rene Marie recently courted controversy when she performed at the “State of the City” address by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. Expected to sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” Marie instead broke out into a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Some have complained, including Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo, that Marie needlessly made a political statement at an event that didn’t warrant as much. But Marie’s choice here also raises the question about whether the song, commonly known as the “Negro” or “black” national anthem still holds the political meanings it once did.
“Lift ev’ry voice and sing, ’till Earth and heaven ring/Ring with the harmony of liberty.”
James Weldon Johnson, the writer of those lyrics, would probably be surprised that nearly a century after he wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that many still feel compelled to sing it. I’m not sure though that Johnson, one of the founding members of the NAACP and an important literary figure during the Harlem Renaissance would be pleased. The political impulses that motivated Johnson to write the song in the first place seem long removed from the consciousness of those who treat its singing as little more than a compulsory act of racial unity. Clearly, Johnson envisioned much more. Still, the song’s title is intriguing. What does it really mean for black communities to sing the same songs—to hear the same melodies, to dance to the same rhythms?
Johnson’s expectation was that the song would be sung by the whole community; “lift every voice” as metaphor for political value of black people speaking with one voice. In the early 20th century, it was an understandable expectation, given that racial segregation gave black folk little choice but to process the world within the guise of a linked fate.
The contexts in which “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is sung today—on college campuses, at corporate diversity celebrations, during elementary school uplift programs—seem, by definition, to be limiting. Would Pookie and Nay-Nay even know the words (as few of us know even the second verse) and should we expect them to at a time when they are little more than the drive-by political targets for conservative pundits and ambitious politicians (I’m talking to you, Barack) of all colors?
Lyrics like “Sing a song, full of the faith that the dark past has taught us…” suggest that Johnson believed that black Americans shared a common, painful heritage that could be evoked in a shared musical language. That premise was critical to the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Soul music served as the logical soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement because it represented the fusion of the harmonies and melodies of the black church with the hard-scrabble concerns of the rhythm and blues world. It is not a too fantastic a claim to say that everybody was listening to or had access soul music back then, and underlying the significance of soul was the role of black radio in getting the message out.
Even Black Arts Movement elites, such as Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni and Haki Madhubuti understood the value of black music in reaching the folk; they often created art that catered to the dance-floor—and the masses of black folk that could be found on those dance floors every Saturday night. The music of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, who popularized black spirituals with songs like “Amen” and “People Get Ready” or the gospel-inflected songs of Aretha Franklin helped galvanize a black nation.
Forty years after James Brown recorded “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” one is hard-pressed to even identify a single song—or radio station, for that matter, that might be popular among the wide diversity of black folk. Ironically, something like 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” with the birthday carol at the beginning, might come close. It’s all too easy to imagine being at grandma’s birthday and singing “yo’ grandma, it’s your birthday…”