A critical chorus over song

Times Staff Writer

The jazz singer, invited to perform the national anthem before the Denver mayor’s annual state of the city address, stood at the microphone and let loose her voice.

What came out were the lyrics of the song known as the black national anthem, set to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“Lift ev’ry voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring,” belted out Rene Marie, as the expressions of city officials behind her grew puzzled.


It was, Marie later said of the unpaid gig, an artistic expression of her emotions about being a black American and a decision she made months ago to no longer sing the national anthem. But instead of telling that to the mayor’s office beforehand, “I pulled a switcheroonie on them,” Marie told the Denver Post.

Now elected officials and residents are joining a chorus of outrage: Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. called her actions disrespectful; Mayor John Hickenlooper accused her of deceiving the city for the purpose of a political statement.

“We all respect artistic license and support freedom of expression,” he said. “But in a tradition-laden civic ceremony . . . making a personal substitution for the national anthem was not an option. We asked for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and that’s what we expected.”

Even Sen. Barack Obama, campaigning for the presidency this week in Colorado, weighed in.

“We only have one national anthem,” Obama told the Rocky Mountain News on Thursday. “And so, if she was asked to sing the national anthem, she should have sung that. ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ is a beautiful song, but we only have one national anthem.”

On newspaper websites, comments have poured in by the hundreds, most of them critical of the popular local singer. Some have said her performance would harm Obama’s presidential bid, a suggestion Marie dismissed as “a serious overestimation of my influence as an artist.”

She did not return a call seeking comment, but on her website she defended her decision in a statement:


“I am an artist,” she wrote. “If I wait until I am asked to express myself artistically, or if I must ask permission to do it, it would never get done. I knew that if I asked to do my version of the national anthem, the answer would be ‘no.’ ”

Marie, 52, said that as a child raised in the segregated South, she sang both songs. But she grew to feel the sentiments of freedom expressed in the national anthem weren’t a reality “for black folks living in a town with Jim Crow laws, where the flag often hung from buildings they could not enter,” she wrote.

“Nobody but black folks found comfort in ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,’ ” penned by James Weldon Johnson and put to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, in about 1900 to commemorate President Lincoln’s birthday. The hymn was sung at protest rallies during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s.

So Marie decided to meld the two anthems in what she describes as a love song to her country. She said she also rewrote the melodies to “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” but kept the lyrics. She calls the three-part suite “Voice of My Beautiful Country.”

Though she apologized to the mayor for any distress she caused him in her performance Tuesday, she stopped short of the public apology others are calling for. “As for offending others with my music, I cannot apologize for that. It goes with the risky territory of being an artist,” she wrote.

Her chances of performing her art for the city again?

Probably not good, according to Hickenlooper, who said he wished he had interceded during Marie’s performance.


“We will do whatever it takes to ensure that a situation like this never occurs again,” he said, “even if I have to sing the national anthem myself.”