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 (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!