A few weeks ago, jazz singer Rene Marie fused the melody of the "Star Spangled Banner" with the lyrics of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" when asked to perform the national anthem at the mayor's annual state of the city address in Denver, CO.
Brilliant. Beautiful and brilliant in both concept and execution. Of course, Rene Marie's performance has been met with quite a bit of hostility and criticism. The language around this is telling. Said Mayor John Hickenlooper of the performance:
"We all respect artistic license and support freedom of expression," he said. "But in a tradition-laden civic ceremony . . . 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."That shit's deep. He talks of "freedom of expression"--a constitutional right that is so evidently conditional and expendable. There are so many historical and contemporary examples of this that words like "irony" or "hypocrisy" don't even begin to cover it. Next, he talks about a "tradition-laden civic ceremony"... and I can't help but think of the legacy of commodity slavery that built this nation...the system that gave this country enough autonomy to fight for independence from England in the first place (and the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air). And I think, why isn't that a "tradition" our nation ever cares to remember?
And suddenly Rene Marie's "substitution" is "personal." To me, her actions were SO beyond a personal substitution! Here, she has put the "(White) American National Anthem" into conversation with what is often considered the "Black (American) National Anthem." Her artistic choice here is so much bigger than just her. Her art is some century-spanning, race-bridging, powerful-ass work!
So though she will never read this, I have to say: Thank you, Rene Marie, for your voice, for your messages, for your art. I hear you.