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Monday, July 7, 2008

"Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing", written first as a poem by James Weldon Johnson, is known largely as the "Black National Anthem" and moves me like no other song.

Traditionally, I heard it in February, at my church's Black History Month celebrations. Every now and then on MLK Day, and sometimes even in the standard church program. (You weren't going to hear much of it at private school during the week.) Always, I associated it with celebration, honor and the best about us as a people. Sadly, it was used as a tool last week, and not for the benefit of the many.

Rene Marie
, a jazz singer based in Bloomfield, Colorado, was invited to perform The Star-Spangled Banner before the Denver mayor's annual state of the city address. Here is what happened.

I admit that when I heard about this, my reflex was to support the sister in her expression of...well, whatever point she was trying to get across. But then I read this:
"I pulled a switcheroonie on them."

Huh? That sounds childish. At the very least, unprofessional. What else?
"I am an artist," she wrote. "If I wait until I am asked to express myself artistically, or if I must ask permission to do it, it would never get done. I knew that if I asked to do my version of the national anthem, the answer would be 'no.'"

Ya think?

But the point wasn't whether or not she sought permission. They did ask her to express her artistic gift - her voice, which is undeniable - to sing a song: The Star-Spangled Banner. If Marie was so dead-set on not singing it and replacing it instead with "Lift Ev'ry Voice", one might think she would have refused the invitation. Instead, she commanded the stage to sing her version of both songs.

While I certainly agree that the SSB is a violent and frankly inappropriate song to be our national anthem, Marie's attempt to marry the song with "Lift Ev'ry Voice" is wrong-headed at best. She insults the purity of Johnson's poem by braiding the melody from the SSB into a song of protest and of liberation from the very society that the SSB celebrates.

So the song that she sang was strange enough. But so are the reasons she remains unrepentant:
"As for offending others with my music, I cannot apologize for that. It goes with the risky territory of being an artist," she wrote.

I respect this sister's ability to express her gift, but that line is such self-aggrandizing crap. She was asked to perform a certain song, she agreed to, and then pulled a "switcheroonie" that, yes, has invited vitriol that she doesn't deserve, but has also garnered her more attention than any cause she may have been drawing attention to.

Oh, yes, that.

In the NPR interview, and in every article I've perused about the topic, she hasn't mentioned anything to justify this other than her being an artist, and flowery language that makes it sound as if her art simply cannot - CANNOT! - be contained within her.

I feel that. As a professional filmmaker who writes a blog in his spare time, I truly do. But, really now.

Let's say I'm asked to cut a film about, for the sake of argument, the patriotic aspects of the sport I principally cover. Instead (because, well, I feel like it), I produce a film that a) is 100% not what we agreed I would do and b) is about something that affects me deeply. That might be all well and good, but I haven't done my job. Marie may be an artist, but in that capacity, she was a professional.

Also, they asked her to sing the national anthem before a mayoral speech that most folks in Denver, let alone America, would've paid attention to. She picks that forum to share her art? Why not a concert? Why not on a radio station? A political rally, perhaps? There are so many more arenas that she could have done this in that would have had greater artistic and political impact. Why choose this time and place?

Well, because it's about her. I agree with Cheryl Contee of Jack & Jill:
I suppose I’d be more sympathetic if her decision to hijack Denver’s annual state of the city meeting was promoting awareness for a specific injustice happening in America or locally Colorado perhaps. Then perhaps it might be construed as a courageous act. As it is though, it seems deceptive — she wasn’t contracted to sing the black national anthem (which is a gorgeous inspirational song). They asked her to sing the National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, which all African-Americans recognize and sing as our nation’s official anthem.

Part of what I hate about gestures like this in today's America is that they seem so self-serving. I mean, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists 40 years ago, they did so to draw attention to a particular issue and at great risk to their professional futures. All Marie likely risked here was another chance to her (and likely, other African-American artists) to sing for the city ever again. And all she had to do was pimp out James Weldon Johnson's classic while pulling her "switcheroonie".

And for what? Attention to Black urban plight? Poor city schools? Racism in city politics? I'd love to know how Marie planned for weeks to do this and seemingly had little time to wonder why she was doing it.

Other than for the sake of art, that is. Other than for herself.


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