MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, violence, intimidation and death in Zimbabwe. Who was behind it? A reporter reveals behind-the-scenes details of the Mugabe regime's violent campaign against his political opponents. That's in just a few minutes.
But first, people celebrated the independence of the U.S. in many different ways this past weekend. Many played renditions of their favorite patriotic songs. But a few days ago one artist created quite a stir when she combined two of her favorite patriotic songs at one event.
Singer Rene Marie was asked to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the annual State of the City Address in Denver. She decided to sing the melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner" but with the lyrics to the so-called black national anthem, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."
(Soundbite of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" to the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner")
Ms. RENE MARIE: (Singing) Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of hope that the present has brought us,
MARTIN: Since then, Rene Marie has been questioned about her patriotism, her manners and even her singing. She's declined almost all media requests to speak about this but she's here with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. MARIE: Thank you, Michel, for asking me.
MARTIN: Now obviously, this was not spontaneous because both of these songs are actually rather difficult to sing. So you had to have rehearsed. What - what were you thinking? What was your thought behind combining the two songs?
Ms. MARIE: Well, I felt like "The Star-Spangled Banner," as exciting as it is to sing, and "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," as wonderful as it is to sing, both have aspects of exclusivity. Seeing how "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, who was a slave holder and an attorney, for about 150 years, many of the sentiments of that song didn't really apply to people of color who were living in the United States. Even though we still sang it with our hands over our hearts, but the reality was, those sentiments didn't really apply fully to a significant proportion of the population in the United States.
And then you had "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," which was - you know, our comfort song, but each one has a measure of exclusivity, I felt. And so as a composer and an artist I was looking for a way to meld some of the contradictory feelings I had about my country and blend them into these songs so I could develop some type of peace within.
MARTIN: So why did you decide to sing - it's not your version, it's your creation.
Ms. MARIE: Arrangement.
MARTIN: Your arrangement.
Ms. MARIE: Yeah.
MARTIN: At this city event. In fact, you said something on your web site. I want to read just a little bit. Well, you talked about your question - you talked about this issue. You said, "I loved singing both songs, but each one seemed to have their own aspects of exclusivity and segregation, not by design, but still the separation was palpable. Could I find a way to marry the two ideologies musically by melding the two songs into one harmonic thought? That would be a hell of a thing. The fear of alienating both blacks and whites by blending these two sacrosanct songs was very real, but through the door I went, not heedless of the offense that might be taken."
Why did you? You're obviously indicating here that you thought there might be some offense. So why did you decide to go forward?
Ms. MARIE: Well, I knew there would be. That's never stopped me before. I feel that if I let things like that stop me I would not be true to myself. So the doors open and we have the choice every time whether to walk through it or not, just as people in general but especially as artists. And sometimes an opportunity is just put right in your lap. But - you know, the prospect of, oh, what's going to happen if I do this? You know, for me, I have to go through that door. I have to.
MARTIN: What response were you hoping for? And what response have you gotten?
Ms. MARIE: I didn't have a hoped-for response. All I hoped for was that I would have the nerve to carry it through to the end. What I expected, based on my past experience, was maybe a few raised eyebrows and maybe some disgruntled folks, but I certainly did not expect this backlash that I ended up experiencing.
MARTIN: What is the nature of the backlash?
Ms. MARIE: The most surprising thing was that - of being accused of being a racist for singing those two songs, for blending those two songs, which was the last thing that was on my mind. I mean, I don't have any feelings of racism. It was in an effort to try and join the two things that I thought musically seemed diametrically opposed to each other.
But to be accused of racism - the hate mail, the volume of it and the amount of pain that was expressed by so many people was extraordinary to me, which just seemed to underscore how important it is for us to have dialogue about these very emotions and issues that those - that the blending of those two songs brought up in our country.
MARTIN: That Mayor Hickenlooper is upset - Mayor John Hickenlooper is upset, and some people are saying that you were rude and self-centered, that you hijacked a public event for artistic purposes. What do you say to that? And are you sorry?
Ms. MARIE: Am I sorry for what?
MARTIN: For making the decision you made?
Ms. MARIE: No, I'm not sorry for singing those songs at that event. I am sorry that it caused so much trouble for the mayor and that he and his staff, they got a lot of hate mail, et cetera. I wasn't the only recipient of hate mail, make that clear. But I'm not sorry for it because I felt like I did what I had to do as an artist.
You know, some people say, well, you know, you should leave your art at home when you're asked to sing a particular song, but I don't know how to leave my art at home because my art is within me. So I can't do that. But if I had to relive it all over again knowing how things turned out, I would do it again, Michel.
MARTIN: Rene Marie joined us from KUVO in Denver, Colorado. You can find out more information about her decision to restyle the national anthem by going to the Tell Me More page at npr.org. There we will have a link to her web site where she talks about her decision at length. We'll also have the lyrics to both "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Lift Ev'ry Voice." Rene Marie, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. MARIE: Thank you, Michel. I enjoyed it.
MARTIN: As you just heard, Rene Marie has been harshly criticized for singing the lyrics to "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," also known as the Negro or black national anthem to the melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Denver State of the City Address. What do you think about her decision? Does this reflect on her patriotism? Is patriotism a matter of interpretation or does it need to be expressed in terms that are acceptable to the broader culture? We'd like to know what you think. Please go to the Tell Me More page at npr.org or call us on our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that number, 202-842-3522.