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 article’s four years late, since it’s actually the anthem from London 2012, but if you want to read a more thoughtful, musicological comment about why the argument’s bunkum, head to New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross’s site.
The Times’ article also revealed a journalist is writing yet another history of the US anthem. Don’t wait for it; buy my book instead. It does the whole history in one chapter and with the occasional funny travelogue, which is clearly all you actually need!
In related news, American Twitter users have being going insane whenever one of their athletes has failed to put their hand on their heart during the anthem – gymnast Gabby Douglas even had to apologise for not doing so.
The outrage is incomprehensible for so many reasons, but just be thankful an American athlete has not yet stuck their tongue out during the Star-Spangled Banner, like Bradley Wiggins did for God Save the Queen.
And yes, there’s nothing worse than stoking American patriotism.
But the clips of Ryan Held crying as the Star-Spangled Banner plays after he’s just won gold in the 4 x 100m freestyle are too good. If anything shows the positive power that anthems can have, it’s the photo above.
“I didn’t think I was going to cry,” he told reporters afterwards. “I was too tired. I didn’t think I could.
“I’ve heard the national anthem hundreds of times, but as soon as that played it was just something different.”
If you want to know the story of that anthem – the bizarre, 100-plus year journey it took to becoming America’s anthem – read my book. There’s a whole chapter on it.
I am, genuinely, expecting a Black Lives Matter protest to occur during one of the US medal ceremonies this Games. Not for someone to start singing the “black national anthem” – Lift Every Voice and Sing – over the top of it, but maybe for someone to hold up a placard. If that occurs, the Star-Spangled Banner will appear here again. Apologies in advance.
A few weeks ago, a friend recommended I listen to Slate’s daily podcast, The Gist – one of the most American podcasts you could come across, but funny and opinionated and topical in a similar way to The Daily Show.
I did as told, but about two episodes in had the shock of hearing myself being introduced as Sir Twittwaddle, and then being torn apart for some comments I made about the Star-Spangled Banner to the BBC.
All credit to Mike Pesca, the man in charge, though. I tweeted him and he decided to get me on to explain myself and talk about the US anthem. You can listen below (or here) from the incredibly specific time of 6:47! It’s a fun interview and somehow I come out in one piece!
Listen before for some bizarre talk about Starbucks sandwiches, and afterwards for some very interesting chat about US gun laws!