This is Colin Kaepernick after being tackled, but it sums up how I’m feeling about his decision! Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
American footballer Colin Kaepernick has announced he will stand for the US national anthem next season, ending his months-long protest against the treatment of minorities in the country.
I know it’s because he needs a job – the San Francisco 49ers have decided not to keep him on – but it’s a shame. You could easily argue things have got worse in the US since his protest started and it’s needed more than ever.
Expect fewer protests all round soon: the US soccer association has announced a new policy saying all players have to “stand respectfully” for anthems at international matches. Last year, Megan Rapinoe kneeled for the Star-Spangled Banner before two games – aping Kaepernick. Guess she won’t any more.
This weekend, an American footballer, Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner. Here is an amazing picture of him 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…]
Another potential flashpoint is the song’s third verse which talks about how “no refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”. Those lines are referring to the Americans defeating British soldiers, who included a handful of ex-slave regiments. Some commentators are now looking at those words as meaning the anthem’s racist, especially as its author was a slave owner although, personally, I think that’s going too far. (The songwriter, Francis Scott Key, was a lawyer who tried to free slaves as well as keeping them, so his history’s complex, and the anthem is a vehemently anti-British song, not an anti-black one. Then there’s the fact no one realised there was a third verse until recently!).
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 (F*ck Donald Trump), which has the benefit of being an utter banger as well as having a message. Enjoy below or, er, give Ray Charles another spin!
The Olympics doesn’t officially start until tonight’s opening ceremony, but things are already going wrong – in anthem terms at least.
Last night, Nigeria beat Japan 5-4 in their opening match of the men’s football tournament (that’s them celebrating above). But beforehand they had the humiliation of being played Venezuela’s anthem rather than their own by mistake.
I’d love to show you a clip, but the IOC seems to have eliminated all traces of it from the internet so instead here are the two anthems. Decide for yourselves which is better.
I wish I could show you the advert that’s offended the UAE, but it’s gone. So here are some of the country’s football fans instead
You sometimes have to worry about the stupidity of advertisers.
Yesterday, BMW unveiled an ad for the United Arab Emirates. Today, it is no more. Why? Here’s a quick run through of said ad:
1-6 seconds: UAE footballers sing national anthem; look bored
7 seconds: BMW revs in distance
8-50 seconds: UAE footballers leg it from stadium and go and drive BMWs!
It seems to have survived one viewing before being withdrawn. The UAE’s main newspaper even found a lawyer to say it likely breached the country’s constitution banning commercial use of national symbols. “The penalty could vary between jail and or a fine,” he said. Poor advertisers!
In their defence, the UAE’s anthem – Ishy Bilady, Long Live My Country – is awful. It was composed by Mohammed Abdel Wahab, one of Egypt’s greatest musicians, but he was also a man who had a habit of knocking out anthems for any country who’d pay, ending up with Libya’s and Tunisia’s as well.
He seemed to benefit from the lack of internet in the 1950s since no one appeared to notice they all sounded the same. Enjoy them below. Or maybe not!
Back in June, Hong Kong football fans started booing – and I mean booing – China’s national anthem as a way of protesting that country’s rule of the province.
FIFA, being FIFA, decided to fine the Hong Kong FA for those boos and demanded they never happened again.
So how did Hong Kong fans react last month? By doing this:
FIFA has unsurprisingly launched an investigation.
Recently, I met a student from Hong Kong at one of my book talks who told me that many people there actually consider their ‘national anthem’ to be a cheesy pop song called Below the Lion Rock (rather than China’s March of the Volunteers).
Performed by Cantopop legend Ramon Tam, it’s the theme tune to a 1970s TV show and it has the sort of appalling lyrics you’d expect of the theme tune to a 1970s TV show (“In life we’re sometimes glad / But we’ll also be sad”) so it’s somewhat surprising it’s become a rallying cry, especially for pro-democracy protesters.
But if you don’t believe me, here’s a video of said monstrosity set to a montage of last year’s Hong Kong student protests. I hope someone re-edits it to cut in those kids holding up the “Boo” signs!
The Marseillaise has always been one of the world’s most contested songs. Within weeks of it being written in 1792, its composer, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, was thrown in prison suspected of being a royalist, a move that almost took the anthem down with him (he only escaped the guillotine by writing another song about Louis XVI having his head chopped off).
It was written as a call to arms to inspire people against an Austrian invasion – hence the chorus: “To arms, citizens … Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” But the interpretation of the lyrics quickly changed, and it would latterly be seen as dangerously anti-establishment and, paradoxically, a tool of the elite.
A few years after that, Napoleon disowned it completely, both because he had seen its power and did not want it inspiring a revolution against him, and, slightly more prosaically, because he hated its composer who had probably had an affair with his wife.
It had a brief recovery in 1830 after the then king, Charles X, was overthrown in the ‘Three Glorious Days’ uprising, but soon it sunk back into disrepute – a song you would only sing if you were old-fashioned and did not realise musical times had changed.
It did not really regain its initial meaning of defiance and unity – of a nation confronting “tyranny’s bloody banner”, to quote the first verse – until the First World War when it became a rallying cry once more. Back then, Rouget de Lisle’s remains were even paraded through the streets of Paris in an effort to inspire, ironically ending up in Invalides, the home of the French military, just yards from Napoleon’s tomb.
The Marseillaise meant everything to the French again during the Second World War (it was sung by the resistance having obviously been banned by the Vichy government). Afterwards it somehow kept that vitality, becoming a rallying cry to rebuild the devastated country, its chorus’s cry of “To arms, citizens” turning out to be just as useful in motivating bricklayers as it had been soldiers.
But since then, there is no denying that it has just become awkward, especially because of how often it was sung during France’s occupation of Algeria and its brutal, eight-year-long war of independence. The Beatles’s use of it in All You Need is Love and Serge Gainsbourg’s brilliant reggae cover – the hilarious Aux Armes et cetera – gave it a brief respite from that image, even for a few years making the anthem cool, but the fact French nationalists tried to beat up Gainsbourg for his cheek tells you more the real direction where things were heading.
If you want to understand the full extent of how controversial it became, you only have to look to football. In 2001, French-Algerians booed it in the first-ever match between the two countries. In 2002, Corsicans booed it at a cup final so loudly that the then president Jacques Chirac stormed out and the match was only allowed to restart after he calmed down. The booing has not really stopped since.
A couple of years ago, I spent a fortnight in France researching the anthem for a book I was writing about the history of these songs. I asked dozens of people what they thought of the Marseillaise, and that controversy – that uncomfortableness – was surprisingly what came through most. Everyone said they liked the music, of course – who couldn’t fall for a melody as stirring as that, one which has grabbed everyone from Tchaikovsky to Debussy? – but the words? That was a different matter. Everyone from teenagers to old women would bring up the chorus and its climax: “Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” They all knew when it’d been originally written, but they also knew it had been hijacked by both its colonial legacy and by the far-right – Le Pen’s National Front – people who seemed to hear the words “sang impur” – “impure blood” – and take it as referring to the country’s immigrants.
I got the strongest reactions from the French-Algerians and French-Tunisians I met. Most could only bring themselves to give the most dismissive answers when I asked them what they thought of the song. “It’s the national anthem,” they would say with a curt laugh, and that was it, no matter how many follow up questions I tried. “Why would you even ask me about that?”
I would point out all anthems are deep down like this, songs written at times of war with their meanings changing over time – Algeria’s at one point says, “Oh France, the day of reckoning is at hand” – but it did not change their views.
You could see that awkwardness even after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. In January, the Marseillaise was sung by France’s politicians just like it was this week, but when they got to the chorus, they seemed to look at each other as if to say, “Are you sure we should be singing this?”
But today, now, something has changed. This moment somehow seems different. As the anthem has been sung around the world, played so much it is almost inescapable, it is as if all those past associations have disappeared, as if the song is being reinvented and reclaimed before is. It is like everyone, in France as much as outside it, is once again seeing it for how it was originally written.
You only have to look at the French parliament’s rendition of the anthem this time to see that. The volume never dropped; the words were never anything but punched out. Tonight at Wembley everyone will sing too, with joy and fun as much as respect and solidarity (you can’t not have fun while singing the Marseillaise). And it’s because of that this moment marks a genuine chance to take the song back from the far-right and make it a symbol of France today, united and defiant, combating tyranny both within its own borders and without.
The Marseillaise could one again become an example to all countries of the importance anthems can have, of being able to inspire people to act in extraordinary ways, something remarkably few anthems achieve (could you imagine people turning to God Save the Queen in a similar moment here?).
But I admit this feeling could only be fleeting. How the Marseillaise will be viewed in a month, six month’s, a year’s time will be entirely dependent on whether French politicians see this as a moment to unite or whether they clampdown on the country’s Muslim population in a way that will only be further divisive. If they do the latter, the Marseillaise will revert to being a contested symbol, one for the far-right only and no one else. You could soon find the Marseillaise being booed again, its current status as an icon of global unity gone in an instant, and everyone who sings it tonight wondering what on earth went wrong. That may fit the song’s history, but it shouldn’t – mustn’t – happen.
[Apologies for that being quite heavy reading. I did a far more to-the-point and celebratory piece for the BBC here. I suggest you read that too even if I clearly wrote it too quickly as there’s far too many ‘but’s!]