Best. National Anthem. Performance. Ever.

“Oh say can you see…me jack this beat?”
Vocalist Rene Marie prepares to knock one outta the state

Kanye West’s “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” speech is now officially retired as my favorite “Straight Jack-Move Racial Protest by a Musician in a Public Forum.” It’s now a distant second to Colorado jazz vocalist Rene Marie’s singing the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” July 1st, at Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s State of the City address, but, instead of using Francis Scott Key’s traditional words, switching them out for the lyrics to James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the so-called “Black National Anthem”!

Here are the lyrics which Rene Marie sang, the first verse to Weldon’s composition:

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,

Till earth and heaven ring.

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise,

High as the list’ning skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on till victory is won.

As you can see, the words are provocative, politically radical, and highly offensive. Actually, what strikes me, after thinking about it, is how much the two songs express similar sentiments. Even in the YouTube, the gathered assembly stands quietly as she sings. There’s a brief silence after she’s done, then seemingly mild applause. It’s almost as though they’ve noticed something was different, but don’t know what to make of it, perhaps.

But on July 2, after what The Denver Post called “a day of measured responses,” Mayor Hickenlooper came out with “a sharply worded rebuke”: “She deceived us.”

“Her actions showed a lack of understanding for how strongly our community feels about patriotic symbols and traditions, and overshadowed a day of great importance to our City.

“We all respect artistic license and support freedom of expression. But in a tradition-laden civic ceremony that included a law enforcement color guard presenting our flags and the Pledge of Allegiance – making a personal substitution for the national anthem was not an option. We asked for the Star Spangled Banner and that’s what we expected.

“No matter what her reasons for taking this action and deliberately withholding her plans from event organizers, she absolutely chose the wrong time and place to do it. She knew what the City’s expectations were, and she was dishonest about her intentions. She imposed her personal choices and their consequences on others – depriving our 12,000 City employees and community-at-large of an opportunity to have their collective accomplishments celebrated and leaving many in our community feeling disrespected.

That same day, said the Post, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter weighed in during a monthly radio show appearance.

“If you invite someone to sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at an event, you invite them to do just that,” Ritter said.

“The problem here is she was invited to do one thing, and she choose
to do another thing,” Ritter added. “And that’s unfortunate, for a variety of reasons. It’s a fair interpretation to say it’s disrespectful.”

Ritter added that as governor of Colorado, he’s observed how people’s facial expressions change when the national anthem is sung and that its singing is a tradition that has meaning for many people.

“There is something about that anthem,” Ritter said. “It is substantive and symbolic. It is about our country, and it is about a level of patriotism.”

As the L.A. Times noted, even Senator Barack Obama, who expects to receive the Democratic nomination for president in Denver next month, got into the act.

“We only have one national anthem,” Obama told the Rocky Mountain News on Thursday. “And so, if she was asked to sing the national anthem, she should have sung that. ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ is a beautiful song, but we only have one national anthem.”

Needless to say, newspaper web site comments pages, not to mention blogs, have gone to full alert over this, overwhelmingly condemning the performance. I had not even heard of this story until catching Tallulah Bankhead’s brief, dry take on it earlier this week, but a quick search showed that it’s everywhere. (“‘Black National Anthem’ brings City Council president hate mail …”; “Subbed anthem lyrics draw some red glares” read somewhat typical CO headlines. Right-wing blogs, of course, were much more direct.)

Certainly, the biggest dumb question that’s been raised is, How will this affect Obama? Even Earl Ofari Hutchinson, often correct on so many topics, castigates Rene Marie on this issue, in a half-hearted piece he doesn’t seem to really even believe himself.

But, as is already clear, this event, and what Rene Marie did, works for me on so many levels.


Hey, girl….Well, first, she’s simply a beautiful singer. Even her detractors would probably agree with that. I mean, that’s why they asked her to do the song, right?

Second, there’s the tactile quality of what she created by taking these two pieces of music and, in a chocolate-in-my-peanut butter / peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate kinda way, jamming them together. (“Rene Marie Remixes the National Anthem,” wrote Colorlines‘s RaceWire blog. “Just hijacked it,” summarized Tallulah Bankhead.)

In a way, it’s a mashup, like my own much-beloved fusion of the “Nicest Kids in Town” dance sequence, from the hit 2007 musical, Hairspray, with “Ante Up (Remix),” the 2000 Funkmaster Flex track by M.O.P., Busta Rhymes, and Remy Ma.

But, even more, it’s jazz, and the way jazz works, through collage, recontextualization, appropriation. In fact, it’s really the way that all Black music typically, powerfully works. “Future employers of her talents might want to be careful about hiring her, not knowing what she might pull,” opined one pundit. Actually, bud, not knowing what she might pull is exactly why people hire her.

Third, there’s just the sheer audacity of the performance. Watching the YouTube, I screamed and hollered through Rene Marie’s entire piece, mostly, I realized later, from discomfort. (Like, you know this is going to end badly.) I’ve watched it only once, but, in a way, it’s bigger as an idea than as a song.

Play on, playa….As a gesture, it immediately reminded me of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s heroic, yet famously deplored Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics, right. More obviously, however, it echoes Jimi Hendrix’s famed Woodstock dissassembly of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” right, which, ironically, is the musical bed of a Mountain Dew ad running on national TV as we speak (and one of my favorite commercials right now).

It’s probably impossible for anyone under 40 to understand how controversial Hendrix’s rendition was at the time. Watch the YouTube clip of it, on the link, above, and at the end, there’s a short bit from Hendrix’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show where the host says that any “unorthodox” performance of the national anthem garners “hate mail.” Were this not a 30-year-old piece of footage, he could be talking about Rene Marie. (Adobe Premiere wizards: Is there a video mashup afoot?)

“Hi, everybody!”Fourth, there are so many moments in this flap that I just adore. Like, in the Rene Marie footage, the Black guy, over her shoulder, who it turns out is Denver City Council President Michael Hancock. Watching him, the whole time, he has that, “Oh, S#@t! I Know What You’re Doing, Even If These White People Don’t!” runaway slave look that so many Black people get when other Africans start acting up around Caucasoids. (Though it’s not clear in the footage, he’s also, I understand, the guy who calls her “Rene Martin,” mangling her name.)

I love the way people at the end applaud, not because they liked it, I’m guessing, but in that dumb way Americans applaud everything.

I love reading the blogs when white people, in disgust, ask “There’s a Black national anthem?” They truly did not know. I’ve been singing this song since I was in third grade. (I never sing “We Shall Overcome,” with which it’s often paired. I refuse to do it.)

Those white people probably see the existence of a derivative, inferior “national anthem” as proof of Black America’s supposed ongoing unwillingness to get along; a nationwide sitting-on-the-other-side-of-the-cafeteria. In a way, Rene Marie has taken the unspoil’t blood of their “Star-Spangled Banner” and contaminated it through semantic race-mixing and musical miscegenation.

But from my perspective, that white people didn’t know Black people had their own national anthem is symptomatic of white aversiveness, coldness, and perceived superiority. It’s the national version of the white “approaching friend” phenomenon I’ve written about here on MEDIA ASSASSIN:

If you’re an adult Black person, you’ve probably had the following experience more than once:

You’re walking down the street, or a supermarket aisle, or an office hallway, when you recognize a white friend or colleague—someone with whom you’ve had fairly regular or even recent contact—coming towards you from the opposite direction. Your face warms expectantly as you get closer to them, only to have them go right past you, often after glancing directly at you in your face.

You then turn around and call out their name. They stop, look at you, then burst into smiles and recognition. “I didn’t notice it was you!”, they apologize.

Sound familiar?

Ain’t she Sweets?Thankfully, not everyone has lost their minds during this kerfuffle. Veteran journalist and former Denver Post columnist Ellen Sweets, right, has urged that the “Singer should be cheered, not jeered.” Center for Independent Media journalist Jefferson Morley’s erudite work calls the song “Rene Marie’s patriotic lesson.” (Both pieces evoke the memory of Hendrix, as well.)

But, most of all, Rene Marie has not lost her mind. She has not backed down, she has not excused what she has done, she has not apologized.

But she has explained it: In a statement on her web site, she goes into depth regarding her reason for doing the song, the backlash, the accusations that are piling up…she even gives her age, 52. Another section discusses her family history and commitment to activism.

People need to read what she says, and, like her performance, they need to listen. Rene Marie is no joke, and she’s a formidable opponent. Man, am I glad she’s on our side.



#1 Tallulah Bankhead on 07.11.08 at 1:57 pm

Like, in the Rene Marie footage, the Black guy, over her shoulder, who it turns out is Denver City Council President Michael Hancock. Watching him, the whole time, he has that, “Oh, S#@t! I Know What You’re Doing, Even If These White People Don’t!” runaway slave look that so many Black people get when other Africans start acting up around Caucasoids.

—highlarious! I wonder if his co-workers are looking for ways to blame him for Rene Marie’s inventive take on the anthem.

Thanks for visiting.

#2 giles on 07.11.08 at 11:36 pm

great entry sir. wonderful. her singing, your context. thank you for the info and the opinions.

#3 raafi on 07.12.08 at 3:29 am

Alicia Keys and Jill Scott did the same thing when they sang the “national anthem” at the NBA all-star game a few years back. I can remember the tv announcers attempting to hide their bafflement afterwards and just moving forward as if something transgressive didn’t just occur.

#4 Sean on 07.12.08 at 11:30 am

Great unpacking of the issues. Love your blog btw.

#5 Brotha 2 the K on 07.05.09 at 1:59 am

I say, “RiGHT ON” Ms Rene Martin for taking a stand.

First of all, most Americans don’t even know all the words to the Nation Anthem. Really people – how many times have you sang this song, then at one point or another, you made up your own words simply because you were unsure of the lyrics. I will bet you one million dollars that 90 percent of the folks at that event couldn’t sing the American National Anthem accurately even if their lives depended on it. That says a whole lot about how most people really view this country.

Moreover, the American National Anthem means “ABSOLUTELY NOTHING” to the majority of black people. Especially since the song ends with the lyrics “…for the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It simply does not apply to African Americans. We still have yet to achieve full equality in the country. Racism still thrives and is embedded in the fabric of America – even though this country was built on the backs of African slaves. Honestly, are the conditions of blacks in this country equivalent the so called “AMERICAN DREAM?” Hell to the NO!! For us, the American Dream is simply that, a DREAM and it’s a DAME shame.

So once again, I say, “RIGHT ON” Ms Rene Martin for taking a stand and singing the “BLACK NATIONAL ANTHEM,” a song that has true meaning to who WE are and what we have yet to achieve and is rightfully ours.

Leave a Comment