Controversy Stirs in Denver as Jazz Singer Rearranges National Anthem
Questions of just how far artistic expression can go have been raised in the national media during the past week, after Colorado jazz singer Rene Marie (pictured) sang a modified version of the national anthem at the Denver State of the City address last Tuesday.
When invited to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” by the Denver mayor’s office, Marie accepted. But when it came time for the performance, Marie sang it her way without any warning to the event organizers.
Standing alone in front of a crowd of Denver city officials and citizens, Marie sang lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”—a song that’s also known as the Black National Anthem—to a modified melody of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
But to some Denver city officials, Marie’s performance was an act of disrespect.
City Council President Michael Hancock, who introduced Marie at the event, said she made “a very bad decision. And unfortunately, the mayor and (myself) and other city council people and other elected officials are bearing the brunt of her very bad and inappropriate decision,” said Hancock to The Rocky Mountain News.
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper said Tuesday to The Denver Post that he was disappointed that Marie’s performance choices became “a distraction from the great work and significant accomplishments of our city employees over the past year.”
Hickenlooper told The Rocky Mountain News that it was “close to impossible” that Marie would ever perform at another city function.
Since then, national media outlets have paid close attention to the meaning and message behind Marie’s performance, continually discussing the forethought of her decision to switch the song.
Comments on news web sites show a range of responses from the American public, some calling Marie’s choice inappropriate, some calling her dishonest and some defending her rights as an artist to make the choice that she did. A poll on The Denver Post web site showed that out of 5,500 people, 67.47 percent said they “hated” the performance, while 7.603 percent said they “loved” it.
Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.) even weighed in on the contention.
“We only have one national anthem,” Obama said to The Rocky Mountain News last Wednesday. “And so, if she was asked to sing the national anthem, she should have sung that.”
“I didn’t expect that singing the song would garner this kind of attention,” Marie said in a statement. “After all, I had sung the exact same song at the Colorado Prayer Luncheon earlier this year before a much larger and wider audience and there wasn’t even a ripple.”
“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was penned as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother in 1899. First performed in 1900, the song eventually was adopted as the unofficial “black national anthem.”
“The Star Spangled Banner,” the official national anthem of the United States since 1931, was written as poem by Francis Scott Key in 1814.
Marie said she grew up singing both anthems, each having its own meaning and message about the country. “I loved singing both songs but each one seemed to have their own aspects of exclusivity and segregation,” she said in the statement. Combining the anthems, she said, was an attempt “to marry the two ideologies musically.
“The fear of alienating both blacks and white by blending those two sacrosanct songs was very real,” Marie said about her composition.
To Marie, the decision to perform the anthem adaptation was purely an artistic choice. She maintains that it wasn’t a publicity stunt, or even a political statement.
Instead, she calls what she performed “a love song to her country.”
“The last thing I wanted to do was cause trouble for the mayor and so I have apologized directly to him for any distress that may have resulted from my singing,” she said. “As for offending others with my music, I cannot apologize for that. It goes with the risky territory of being an artist.”
Marie’s full statement about the performance, as well as samples of the “Voice of My Beautiful Country” suite are available at her web site, ReneMarie.com.
The July 1 performance at the State of the City address is available on YouTube: click here