There is nothing like an academic review of your book

Yes, my book came out ages ago, but no, that doesn’t mean it’s stopped being reviewed. This month, Nations & Nationalism – the world’s leading journal of nationalism studies – has featured it and, amazingly, they like it:

“An entertaining read that will aid nationalism scholars in considering how myths of everyday nationhood are received and felt of as significant”

Blimey! I thought academics would annihilate it, so the review’s incredibly pleasing to read. That’s only one line of the 800-word review, which also talks a lot about my “innovative research method” (talking to the composers and poets behind anthems), and situates my book in an more academic context making it sound incredibly intellectual!

Huge thanks to Eviane Leidig from Oslo University’s Centre for Research on Extremism for reviewing it.

If any academics read this and want me to come in and chat with their students, get in touch.

Why Gambia’s president should listen to his anthem

Jammeh inspecting his police

Gambia’s in crisis, if you’ve missed the news, with its president, Yahya Jammeh, refusing to end his 22-year rule despite having lost an election and even admitted doing so. He’s got the army’s backing. Things don’t look like they’re going to end prettily.

But on the plus side, this does give me a chance to look at the country’s national anthem!

The bad point? It’s awful! It was written by the country’s former British administrator, Sir Jeremy Howe, with lyrics by his wife. Which is why it doesn’t sound very Gambian. In fact, it sounds more suited to the Yorkshire Dales than tropical Africa.

But there is one good point in light of the current crisis: the lyrics.

For the Gambia, our homeland
We strive and work and pray
That all may live in unity
Freedom and peace each day
Let justice guide our action
Towards the common good
And join our diverse peoples
To prove man’s brotherhood
We pledge our firm allegiance
Our promise we renew
Keep us, great God of nations
To The Gambia ever true

Jammeh seems to be ignoring every word of that. Here’s hoping he listens soon.

Dear Cyprus, please unite around a different anthem

Part of the border wall separating Greek from Turkish Cyprus. The graffiti sums up what a lot of people think

Part of the border wall separating Greek from Turkish Cyprus. The graffiti sums up what a lot of people think

This week, the leaders of Greek and Turkish Cyprus began talks to unite the country, which has been divided by a wall – literally – since 1974. That’s part of it above.

Will they succeed? Er… fingers crossed! But if they do, can the United Nations please not pick the country’s new national anthem (the Greek part currently uses Greece’s anthem; the Turkish side, Turkey’s)?

In the early 2000s, Kofi Annan put forward this awful tune to be the country’s anthem as part of a unification plan:

It was rejected by voters, along with the rest of the peace deal, presumably for musical as much as political reasons.

The proposed anthem was wordless, something the UN seems to feel is essential if anthems are to help heal decades of trauma. The logic seems to be that uniting a country is hard enough; forcing words upon people – potentially in a language they don’t understand, and filled with symbolism they disagree with – is going too far. Hopefully the music will be inspiring by itself.

The problem is that wordless anthems don’t help. They just leave a vacuum, which people can sing their old divisions over. Bosnia’s anthem? Wordless. Kosovo’s? Wordless. Spain’s? Wordless. You would hardly call those countries good examples of how to avoid ethnic divisions.

For more on wordless anthems, see my book. It has a whole chapter on them.

The Paralympics – more anthems than the Olympics (including some words on Trinidad and Tobago’s)

Australia on their way to winning gold at the wheelchair rugby. Always an amazing sport to watch

Ouch! Australia on their way to winning gold at the wheelchair rugby

If you watched the Paralympics, you might have noticed something. No, not that wheelchair rugby is an incredibly violent sport. But that the countries that won gold are hugely different to the Olympics winners.

Some 63 countries took that medal, four more than at the Olympics, and 17 of those didn’t win one gold a month ago, and that includes such giants (in population terms) as India, Egypt and Nigeria. What does that mean? Well, it probably says a lot about the lack of money in the Paralympics meaning there’s a more equal playing field, but, in the context of this national anthem-obsessed blog, it means only one thing: that people got to hear 17 anthems for the first time this year!

Many of those anthems I’ve written about on here or in my book. They range from greats like Algeria’s (the only anthem to mention machine guns) to the controversial like Iraq’s, the much loved like Malaysia’s, to the plain naughty like Mexico’s (the only anthem written out of lust).

But there were a few that I haven’t written about, of which one sticks out: Trinidad and Tobago’s.

What’s interesting about Forged From the Love of Liberty that makes it worth choosing? Musically? Nothing. And lyrically? Nothing either!

But there are two reasons it’s interesting. Firstly, it was originally written as the anthem of the West Indies Federation, which lasted from 1958 to 1962, and was an attempt to almost create one country in the Caribbean. Its author Patrick Castagne made his song vague enough to appeal to everyone, with lines about all the islands “side by side…our hearts joined across the sea.” But when the federation collapsed he didn’t decide to just let it disappear to history, he tweaked it to make it work for Trinidad and Tobago instead. He was somehow awarded $5,000 for those three minutes of work.

It’s the only anthem I know of that’s been rewritten in that way (Russia’s used to the be the anthem of the Soviet Union, but I think this is more dramatic).

The second thing that’s interesting is Patrick himself. Patrick wasn’t just an anthem writer. He also wrote calypsos, including this great tune, Ice Man for someone called Lord Melody.

I wonder if Akeem Stewart – the Trinidadian Paralympian who won gold in the javelin at the Paralympics and silver in the discus – would have preferred to have heard some calypso on the podium instead of his anthem. If you know him, please ask.

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…]

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 (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 #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 #8: Puerto Rico!

Tennis player Monica Puig, Puerto Rico's first ever gold medallist, crying on the podium. Stolen from the Washington Post / Jonathan Newton

Tennis player Monica Puig, Puerto Rico’s first ever gold medallist, crying on the podium. Stolen from the Washington Post / Jonathan Newton

Years ago, I wrote on here about Puerto Rico’s national anthem – La Borinqueña – for one simple reason: it’s the world’s only sexy anthem. It was originally written as a dancehall song called Gorgeous Brunette, but, somehow, even as an anthem it still carries a little heat in the trumpets.

Which is why it’s such amazing news that Monica Puig (above) won the women’s tennis at the Olympics. Because it means I can feature it again!

Puerto Ricans have won gold before, but under the banner of the USA, so this was the first time the anthem was ever played at a Games. Monica actually lives in the US, but she apparently made sure to learn la Borinqueña’s every word before the final. In the end, she cried too much to sing.

(I hope you all watched it, by the way. The final game alone, when she kept on getting to match point, but losing, was exhilarating).

As a bonus, here’s the wonderfully sensual original song the anthem’s based on:

And here’s a fantastic article on Puerto Rico’s ongoing financial problems. It is effectively broke. Monica’s medal is the only light the country has had for a while.

Update: some footage of Monica Puig during the anthem has finally appeared!