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Poetic License Raises A Star-Spangled Debate

Patriotism can mean different things to different people.

On July 1, 2008, jazz singer Rene Marie, flanked by elected officials and civil servants, calmly approached the microphone before Denver's State of the City address. She was there to perform a time-honored ritual: the singing of the national anthem.

But her arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner left residents divided. The melody was the same, but the words she chose were written by James Weldon Johnson in 1899. They belong to the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as "The Black National Anthem."

Marie is one of the rare artists today who invites comparison with Civil Rights-era singers Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln. Like them, her devotion to social issues has threatened her career, and raised questions about the role of the artist in society and what it means to be patriotic and African-American.

Indeed, it didn't take long for state and local politicians to denounce Marie's Denver performance. Some called it a disgrace.

With a little more than a month until the city hosted the Democratic National convention, then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama was even asked about the incident by the now defunct Rocky Mountain News.

"If she was asked to sing the national anthem, she should have sung that," Obama said. "'Lift Every Voice and Sing' is a beautiful song, but we only have one national anthem."

The Power Of Words

To be clear, Marie was specifically invited to sing the national anthem. But she did not sign a contract, and she'd been performing her arrangement for several months. She says the governor and officials from the mayor's office even heard her sing it at an earlier event.

Marie rejects the idea that dishonesty was at the center of the uproar.

"I can see why they would say it," Marie says. "But I think if I had sung 'America the Beautiful' or 'My Country 'Tis of Thee' instead of the national anthem, nobody would have had anything to say about there being any dishonesty. So it's not about that. It's about what I sang."

Marc Lamont Hill, one of the few news commentators sympathetic to Marie's actions, says Marie's Denver performance embodies black patriotism.

"It's celebrating black progress, black hope, black pride," Hill says. "But it's also keenly — fundamentally, even — preoccupied with the obstacles that lay in front of us. That's reflected not just in that moment, but in the broader political moment, where people are celebrating Barack Obama as president. People are excited that the country has moved forward — but people [are] still keenly aware that there are many, many forms of inequality, unfreedom, suffering [and] marginalization that continue to proliferate in this nation."

The Source Of Strength

Marie was born in Virginia, a child of the Civil Rights era. All of the schools she attended were segregated. Her mother and father, both teachers, helped integrate a local lunch counter when their daughter was around 8 years old.

"At the Frost Diner — on the bypass in Warrenton, Va., which is still there — there was a sign on the door that said 'no dogs and no n----s,'" Marie remembers. "And they went in and they were refused service, but no violent incident came about as a result. But the incident that did happen was my father lost his job. He was blackballed and never rehired to teach in the county again."

A Jehovah's Witness, Marie began performing professionally only when she left the church — and her marriage — at the age of 42. She had a recording contract within months.

Her compositions take on homelessness, religion and racial injustice. Her arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" with "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is part of a larger suite she calls Voice of My Beautiful Country, which she has made available as a free download.

Fan Mail

The sales of her recordings have been modest, but the response to her performance in Denver was startling: more than 1,600 e-mails. Many African-Americans were offended by her use of the national anthem; some objected to her adaptation of "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

Other e-mails were laced with racial slurs. A handful were death threats.

"I've had so many e-mails," Marie says, "some of the e-mails saying that 'The Star Spangled Banner' is sacred. Oh, really. Maybe it's sacred to you. That's fine, that's cool. But it's not sacred to me. The guy, the dude who wrote it, he's a slave owner."

Francis Scott Key was a plantation owner, and the melody, which so many consider sacred, was borrowed from an English drinking tune. In addition to the e-mails, Marie got phone calls — which she answered.

"I learned a lot," Marie says. "And I had some really good phone calls from complete strangers. A lot didn't expect me to answer the phone. They kind of sputtered for the first few seconds. 'Well, I just wanted to tell you what I thought about it.' 'OK, tell me, I'm listening.'

"That's when I realized you don't have to agree, but listening sure does go a long way toward peaceful relations — when people feel they are being heard."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Timesand the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.