Why there needs to be more Black Lives Matter anthem protests

This weekend, an American footballer, Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner. Here is an amazing picture of him sitting:

kaepernick sitting

Which apparently makes for huge news in the States, especially after he said this afterwards:

I am not going to stand up to show pride for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting away with murder.

I was genuinely shocked when I heard the news. Not because of what Kaepernick did, but because he’s the first.

The Star-Spangled Banner is something I’ve been expecting Black Lives Matter supporters to have long used in protests or to have protested against. I mean, “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? That hardly seems to ring true at this moment, does it? I’ve also long been expecting an athlete – black or otherwise – to realise the symbolic importance of the anthem. I was sure one would do something during an Olympic medal ceremony.

[Kaepernick turns out to have been doing this for a few games without anyone realising, so maybe others have, but…]

So, why has it taken so long? I worry it’s because being labelled “unpatriotic” in the US has become so stigmatising – far more so than in other countries – that tackling the anthem is seen as too risky. That shouldn’t be the case. National anthems are there mainly to unite and inspire, yes, but they’re also there to reflect a nation – and that means they can and should be used to criticise it.

Kaepernick is in a long line of people who’ve used anthems to make political points (see my book to learn about the many Japanese who use theirs to protest right-wing politics, for instance, or just think of Hendrix doing his Star-Spangled Banner covers). I hope he’s not the last.

Kaepernick’s protest did make me realise one other thing: I haven’t written about Lift Every Voice and Sing, the so-called Black National Anthem, on this blog. The words were written back in 1900 for a group of school children, which probably explains why its message is so clear:

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of liberty

It was given a tune in 1905, but didn’t take on its current status until 1919 when the NAACP – the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – named it the “negro national anthem” and started pushing it. Here’s an amazing video of Ray Charles singing it in 1972:

Is it right for now? The message, yes. But, musically, obviously not. I’m also the sort of person who thinks every protest movement should write its own music.

The best black American protest song I’ve heard lately is YG and Nipsey Hussle’s FDT (Fuck Donald Trump), which has the benefit of being an utter banger as well as having a message few would argue with. Enjoy below or, er, give Ray Charles another spin!

Olympic anthem of the day #17: Japan!

Super Shinzo Abe. Er...

Super Shinzo Abe! Er…

What was the best anthem at the lympics? Going by Twitter, it was Japan’s, and by a mile.

Every time it was played – for Kōhei Uchimura at the gymnastics, for the amazing Risako Kawai at the wrestling – the comments were the same: “So beautiful”; “So moving”; “Why can’t we have an anthem like bloody Japan’s?”

And every one those comments was right.

I know far too much about Japan’s anthem having travelled across that country while researching my book on these songs. And it’s not just the world’s most beautiful anthem, it’s also its most controversial, with a deeply sad story behind it, filled with politicians hounding people to stand and sing, even though the anthem’s associated with the country’s militaristic past.

Who’s been one of the main politicians behind that hounding? Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister and a man who featured prominently in last night’s Closing Ceremony, appearing as Super Mario just moments after Japan’s anthem was sung (that’s him in the photo). Which city in Japan’s got the worst anthem laws? Tokyo, whose new right wing give it was also at the ceremony.

I look forward to hearing Japan’s anthem a lot over the next few years, but I hope Abe doesn’t try to pass any more laws trying to force people to respect it. Hosting the Olympics is always a time for national pride, but it’s never a time to blindly force that pride on a population.

Olympic anthem of the day #16: Tajikistan!

This is what someone looks like after just throwing the hammer over 78 metres. I was kind of expecting more sweat!

This is what someone looks like after just throwing the hammer 78.68 metres. I was expecting more sweat!

The composer of Tajikistan’s national anthem, Suleiman Yudakov, didn’t have the greatest start in life. He was an orphan and a Bukharan Jew – two groups that didn’t fare well in the Soviet Union.

But he fell so hard in love with music, he studied it until he was admitted into Moscow Conservatory, then into the ranks of the Soviet Union’s leading composers.

Dilshod Nazarov, the Tajik winner of the men’s hammer at the Olympics (that’s him in the picture), probably doesn’t know that story, but I imagine he can identify with Yudakov’s life. Dilshod, himself, beat enormous odds to win his country’s first ever gold medal. Age 34, in his fourth Olympics, an old man of the sport, he wasn’t expected to win, but did, showing just what you can do if you work hard.

What’s the country’s anthem actually sound like?

Like a Tajik army parading past a dictator. Which is a bit odd given the lyrics are about as far from that aggressive image as you can get:

Our beloved country
We are happy to see your pride
Let your happiness and prosperity be forever
We have reached this day since ancient times
We stand under your flag, under your flag

Tajikistan was one of nine countries to win their first ever Olympic gold medal at Rio along with Singapore, Kosovo, Côte d’Ivoire, Puerto Rico, Jordan, Fiji, Bahrain and Vietnam. You can hear all their anthems by clicking on those links! Only 59 anthems were played in all, which is pretty rubbish when you think that’s only about a quarter of the world’s songs, but that’s sport for you.

I am missing the Olympics already😦

Olympic anthem of the day #15: Ivory Coast! With a bonus Jordan!

Ivory Coast winning its first gold

If any moment this Olympics taught me you have to keep going until the last moment, it was the men’s -80kg taekwondo final.

It was all over British TV because our athlete, Lutalo Muhammad, was expected to win, but then in literally the final second, Côte d’Ivoire’s Cheick Sallah Cisse kicked Lutalo in the head and sprinted off, running laps and laps of the arena, perhaps the most excited person to win gold at this whole Games.

It was the first time Côte d’Ivoire’s ever won a gold, which means it was also the first time most TV viewers got to hear the country’s anthem, L’Abidjanaise – bizarrely named after the city of Abidjan even though it’s no longer the country’s capital and the song has nothing to do with it.

Was it worth the wait? If you like drunken French military marches, which almost lurch from one bar to the next, then yes!

But if there’s actually a reason to give it a listen, it’s the lyrics, which almost beg the country to work harder, as if words alone can overcome all its problems.

Clearly most people ignore their message, but I’m sure Cisse, for one, took inspiration from this chorus:

Proud Ivorians, the country calls us
If we have brought back liberty peacefully
It will be our duty to be an example
Of the hope promised to humanity
In building, united in the new faith
The homeland of true brotherhood

Ok, it’s a bit like a greeting card, but stop complaining and go and win a medal yourself!

Bonus anthem: The taekwondo arena proved a great place to hear anthems for the first time this Olympics. Jordan won its first-ever medal there too when Ahmad Abughaush (that’s him below), a 20-year-old student, won the featherweight class.

Ahmad Abughaush wins gold for Jordan

What’s the country’s anthem like? Well, given its chorus translates as “Long live the King / Long live the King / His position is sublime / His flags wave in glory supreme,” let’s just say it could do with having a message like Côte d’Ivoire’s.

Olympic anthem of the day #14: Jamaica!

Bolt claiming his ninth gold as someone else falls over in shock

Bolt claims ninth gold causing man next to him to fall over in shock

You would hope the country that’s given the world Usain Bolt, Elaine Thompson, Asafa Powell, Omar McLeod and countless other sprinting superstars would have an anthem to match their speed, charisma and excitement.

Instead, it has Jamaica, Land We Love!

On one level, it’s unsurprising. The anthem was written in 1962 by four people including a local vicar just as the country gained independence from Britain. It was always likely to sound like a God Save the Queen rip off.

So… is it time Jamaica dumps it? Maybe get rid of the brass and replace it with some reggae or ragga? I’ve long thought so. I even call for the country’s politicians to do just that in my book on anthems.

But today I heard controversial dancehall star (he’s in prison for murder) Vybz Kartel’s cover of the anthem and I think it’s changed my mind.

Bloody hell. Jamaica, keep what you’ve got!

Olympic anthem of the day #13: Independent Olympic Athletes! Otherwise known as Kuwait!

If you look at the Olympic medal table right now, one thing stands out. No, not the bizarre state of affairs that is Great Britain being second, but this:

Medal table, Independent Olympic Athletes

Yep, an independent has won gold for the first time.

When I saw this, I assumed it was one of #teamrefugee (the hashtag’s obligatory), but it turns out it was actually the man below: Fehaid Aldeehani, a Kuwaiti, who won the men’s double trap shooting contest.

Fehaid Aldeehani wins gold at Rio

The reason he had to compete as an independent is Kuwait’s banned form the Olympics because its government interferes in sport. Naughty them!

What did this mean for Fehaid? Well, one, had to watch the Olympic flag get raised rather than his own, and, two, that he had to listen to the godawful Olympic anthem get played (I’ve written about that before here if you want to hear it).

Was he happy about that? Well, I’d guess ‘no’ since he’s a member of Kuwait’s army and massively patriotic. He refused to hold the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony. But, well, he looks pretty pleased in the photo, doesn’t he? So who knows!

In case he wasn’t, though, here for Fehaid and for you, is Kuwait’s anthem:

Quite fun, no?

I actually give Kuwait a mention in my book on anthems in a chapter on Bosnia:

The idea of doing without words [in anthems] has been most popular in the Middle East – a surprise, perhaps, given poetry is considered the greatest of art forms in many of its countries. Kuwait’s anthem, for instance, was initially just a 15-second brass flourish and so boring at that it could have done with being half the length. Iraq, Qatar, the UAE and North and South Yemen (the two countries that preceded the current one) also didn’t feel the need to have words to their original anthems, although from the 1950s onwards they all seemed to cave in, one after the other, like embarrassed teenagers desperately trying not to look out of place at the school disco. Kuwait’s is now a word-packed two minutes (at one point it praises the country’s emir for ‘Fencing us all fairly’). It could still do with being cut in half.

I perhaps shouldn’t have been so harsh.

Olympic anthem of the day #12: Italy!

Elia Viviani winning the men's omnium, prompting mass culling of Justin Bieber on Italian radio!

Elia Viviani wins the men’s omnium, prompting a mass culling of Justin Bieber on Italian radio

Each time Italy’s won a medal at this Olympics, every radio station in the country has apparently cut what they were playing – some Justin Bieber probably – and banged on the country’s national anthem.

Which is both the most insane and patriotic thing I’ve heard happening during these Games. Italy has so far won 23 medals. That’s a lot of interruptions.

Is the Song of the Italians (Il Canto degli Italiani) worth cutting a Bieber track for? If the track in question’s What Do You Mean? the answer’s a clear no. But if it’s any of his other hits, the answer’s a clear yes.

Il Canto degli Italiani has got one of the most brilliantly rambunctious tunes of all anthems – one that struts through its melody as if demanding you gawp at it. And as for its lyrics, it’s got a chorus that gets right to the point of what all anthems are meant to be about: “We are ready to die / We are ready to die / Italy has called.”

Maybe a few other countries should follow Italy’s example. Except Britain, obviously. Oi, BBC, don’t get any ideas!