MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
Now a story about patriotism and song. A year ago last July 1st, jazz singer Rene Marie was invited to sing the "Star Spangled Banner" for a public event in Denver. What ended up happening created an uproar, left locals divided and raised questions about the role of the artist and the meaning of patriotism for African-Americans. Lara Pellegrinelli reports.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Rene Marie was flanked by elected officials and civil servants as she calmly approached the microphone before Denver's State of the City address last year. She was there to perform a time-honored ritual, the singing of the National Anthem.
(Soundbite of "Black National Anthem")
Ms. RENE MARIE (Singer): (Singing) Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring.
PELLEGRINELLI: The melody was the same, but the words she chose were written by James Weldon Johnson in 1899. They belong to the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as "The Black National Anthem."
Ms. MARIE: (Singing)…Let us march on till victory is won.
PELLEGRINELLI: It didn't take long for state and local politicians to denounce the performance. Some called it a disgrace. With a little more than a month until Denver hosted the Democratic National Convention, then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama was even asked about the incident.
President BARACK OBAMA: If she was asked to sing the national anthem, she should have sung that. "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is a beautiful song but we have one national anthem.
PELLEGRINELLI: To be clear, Rene Marie was invited to sing the national anthem. She did not sign a contract, and she says the governor and officials from the mayor's office heard her sing her arrangement of "Lift Every Voice" in an earlier event. Marie rejects the idea that her dishonesty was at the center of the uproar.
Ms. MARIE: I can see why they would say it. But I think if I had sung "America the Beautiful" or "My Country 'Tis of Thee" instead of the national anthem, nobody would have had anything to say about there being any dishonesty. So it's not about that. It's about what I sang.
Mr. MARC LAMONT HILL (News Commentator): I think her performance embodies black patriotism.
PELLEGRINELLI: Marc Lamont Hill, one of the few news commentators sympathetic to Marie's actions considers her performance an act of resistance.
Mr. LAMONT HILL: It's celebrating black progress, black hope, black pride. But it's also keenly fundamentally even preoccupied with the obstacles that lay in front of us. That's reflected not just in that moment, but in the broader political moment where people are celebrating Barack Obama as president. People are excited that the country has moved forward, but people are still keenly aware that there are many, many forms of inequality, unfreedom, suffering, marginalization that continue.
PELLEGRINELLI: A child of the Civil Rights era, Rene Marie was born in Virginia. All of the schools she attended were segregated. Her mother and father, both teachers, helped integrate a local lunch counter when their daughter was around eight years old.
Ms. MARIE: At the Frost Diner on the bypass in Warrenton, Virginia, which is still there — the sign on the door said, no dogs and no niggers. And they went in, they were refused service, but politely so. No violent incident came about as a result, but my father lost his job. He was blackballed and never rehired to teach in the county again.
PELLEGRINELLI: A Jehovah's Witness, Marie only began performing professionally when she left the church and her marriage at the age of 42. She had a recording contract within months.
(Soundbite of song, "God Bless the Child")
Ms. MARIE: (Singing) Them that's got shall get. Them that's not shall lose. So the Bible said and it still is news. Mama may have, papa may have. But God bless the child that's got his own. That's got his own.
PELLEGRINELLI: Marie's own compositions take on homelessness, religion and racial injustice. Her arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" with "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is part of a larger suite she calls "Voice of My Beautiful Country."
(Soundbite of song, "America the Beautiful")
Ms. MARIE: (Singing) O beautiful for spacious skies for amber waves of grain...
PELLEGRINELLI: The sales of her recordings have been modest, but the response to her performance in Denver was startling - more than 1,600 emails. Many African-Americans were offended by her use of the national anthem while some objected to her adaptation of "Lift Every Voice". Other emails were laced with racial slurs. A handful were death threats.
Ms. MARIE: Some of the emails saying that "The Star Spangled Banner" was sacred. Oh, really? Maybe it's sacred to you. That's fine, cool. But it's not sacred to me. The dude who wrote it, he was a slave owner.
PELLEGRINELLI: Francis Scott Key was a plantation owner, and the melody, which so many consider sacred, was borrowed from an English drinking tune. In addition to the emails, Marie got phone calls which she answered.
Ms. MARIE: I learned a lot. And I had some really good phone calls from complete strangers. A lot of them didn't expect me to answer the phone, you know, they kind of sputtered for the first few seconds. Well, I just wanted to tell you what I thought about it. Okay, tell me, I'm listening. And that's when I realized, we don't have to agree, but listening sure does go a long way toward peaceful relations — when people feel that they are being heard.
PELLEGRINELLI: And that's all Rene Marie is really asking for. For NPR News I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.