Lift Every Voice And Sing

Songfacts®:

  • Often referred to as the "black national anthem," this enduring song depicts the African American struggle for liberty in the nation that enslaved them and inspires courage to fight for a better future. Written in 1900, it started out as a poem by James Weldon Johnson, a civil rights activist and principal of the Edwin M. Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida. The segregated institution was preparing for a special event to honor Abraham Lincoln's birthday and welcome guest speaker Booker T. Washington, an influential African American leader. Weldon wrote the poem for the occasion, where it was recited by 500 students. From the moment he put the words down on paper, he knew he had something special. "I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so," he recalled in his autobiography.

    Five years later, his brother J. Rosamond Johnson added music and it became a popular hymn in black schools and churches.
  • The lyrics draw parallels to the biblical Book of Exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt on a long and difficult journey to the Promised Land. The song encourages the weary travelers to praise God and rely on their faith to guide them on the rough road to victory.
  • The NAACP adopted this as their official song in 1919. In 2018, the organization's president, Derrick Johnson, spoke to NPR about the tune's significance. "It spoke to the history of the dark journey of African-Americans," he explained, "and for that matter many Africans in the diaspora who struggled through to get to a place of hope."

    The song has remained a rallying cry in black communities during their arduous journey through segregation, the civil rights movement, and ongoing battles against racism and police brutality.
  • In the midst of nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd's murder in 2020, the NFL announced that the song would be played before the national anthem during Week 1 of the ensuing season to recognize victims of systemic racism. Alicia Keys was the first to perform it during the season; her recorded rendition (because of coronavirus) was shown before the Texans played the Chiefs in the opening game on September 10, 2020.
  • In honor of Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the 1865 emancipation of slaves in the US, Google included a spoken-word recitation by LeVar Burton in the Google Doodle for June 19, 2020.
  • Not everyone thinks this is a fitting anthem for the black experience. Nina Simone, renowned jazz singer and civil rights activist, thought her own tune "Young, Gifted And Black" was more revolutionary. Her daughter, Lisa, explained: "I can remember her telling me, 'You need to know where you come from, and you need to know these words."

    Likewise, Public Enemy clashed with Spike Lee when the director wanted them to reinterpret the song for the 1989 film Do The Right Thing. Hank Shocklee, the hip-hop group's producer, recalled to Blender in 2002: "I had a three-hour fight with him. It was heated. I was in his office on DeKalb Street in Brooklyn, and I'm saying, 'Spike, kids don't listen to 'Lift Every Voice and Sing.' Open this window, stick your head outside and listen to the kind of sound that you hear comin' out of cars and boxes. It's the spirit of the streets that you wanna convey.'"

    Ultimately, Lee made a compromise. The film opens with a 30-second instrumental of "Lift Every Voice And Sing" by sax player Branford Marsalis before exploding into Public Enemy's defiant anthem "Fight The Power."
  • Its reputation as the black national anthem was reinforced at the Wattstax festival on August 20, 1972. Organized by Stax Records, the soul concert was held at the Los Angeles Rams' football stadium for a crowd of more than 100,000 people - mostly African American - to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 1965 riots in the Watts neighborhood. The event featured performances from the label's stable of artists, including The Staple Singers, The Bar-Kays, Albert King, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, and Kim Weston. While the audience was unfazed by Weston's performance of the "Star Spangled Banner," they leapt to their feet when she returned to the stage with "Lift Every Voice And Sing."
  • In 1990, Melba Moore recorded a contemporary version with a group of popular R&B and gospel artists, including Dionne Warwick, Anita Baker, Stephanie Mills, Freddie Jackson, Jeffrey Osborne, Howard Hewett, Stevie Wonder, Bobby Brown, BeBe & CeCe Winans, Take 6, and The Clark Sisters. Moore's aim was to inspire black pride and support black charities. She explained to Jet magazine:

    "I like philanthropy. I like doing God's work. It excites me. That's why, first of all, I wanted the beneficiaries of the song to be black charities, because everything about this project is to enhance black pride. And in that sense, we are exclusive in the sense in that the song is about brotherhood and freedom. Of course it is international, but charity starts at home."

    The single, which was included on her Soul Exposed album, went to #9 on the R&B chart.
  • President Barack Obama and his family sang this with Smokey Robinson at the White House Civil Rights Concert in 2014. The third verse was also recited by Reverend Joseph Lowery at Obama's 2009 inauguration.
  • In 2018, Beyonce sang a portion of this at Coachella when she became the first black woman to headline the event. But it could have been a very different performance if not for a last-minute adjustment. She explained in a Vogue interview: "One day I was randomly singing the black national anthem to [daughter] Rumi while putting her to sleep. I started humming it to her every day. In the show at the time I was working on a version of the anthem with these dark minor chords and stomps and belts and screams. After a few days of humming the anthem, I realized I had the melody wrong."

    She continued: "I was singing the wrong anthem. One of the most rewarding parts of the show was making that change. I swear I felt pure joy shining down on us. I know that most of the young people on the stage and in the audience did not know the history of the black national anthem before Coachella. But they understood the feeling it gave them."

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