What’s in a national anthem?

By Kirk Moss

Kirk Moss

One of the most cherished aspects of a nation’s identity is its national anthem.  For centuries citizens have gleefully sung their anthems.  They’ve recited them with passion, pronouncing every word as if they were a national spelling bee contestant.  But most recently, two of North America’s enchanting voices, Canadian Jully Black and American Jill Scott – unrelated to the superlative griot-poet who coined the phrase “the revolution will not be televised” – sang the unthinkable.    

Black is an iconic Canadian artist and one of the most powerful female vocalists of our time.  She boldly made a change to our national anthem at the NBA All-Star game this past winter in Salt Lake City. 

Inspired by the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Black, in her most soulfully-soothing voice sang the words “on native land”. Her actions were not only well-received but were taken as a gesture of “standing on guard” for our nation’s conscience.  Black was determined to spark a conversation about a song that represents who we were, are, and the nation we are striving to become.  Thus, her actions were the reflection of a fundamental question: is our national anthem a truthful depiction of our nation? 

Jully Black

Most of us remember the good old-days, when our parents told us that ‘sticks and stones may break your bones but words were harmless’. However, for Jill Scott, one of North Philly’s finest neo-soul artists, the words within “The Star-Spangled Banner” carry centuries of pain, trauma and indescribable generational-misery, especially for African-Americans.  

When Scott took to the glittering stage at the most recent Essence Music Festival, over the July 4th long weekend, another vibe had infused the Nawlins (aka New Orleans) air.  Something was lurking beneath Scott’s voice in the haunting milieu of the Bayou.  For a split second, it was hard not to imagine the countless African lives lost to the infested-waters of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as those who perished during hurricane Katrina. It was during this devastating storm that one artist, while conducting a telethon, bravely stated to the nation that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” as his visible raw nervousness resonated with millions of Americans.  

Embodying this sentiment of ‘truth-telling’ in the face of cancel-culture and viral-videos, Scott decided, as an artist and a proud African-American citizen, to speak her truth.   She prescribed her own version of the anthem, once intended by its original authors to capture the values of liberty, freedom and justice for all.  Like millions of Americans, from all walks of life, Scott felt the need to take a serious look at the anthem, juxtaposed with modern-day America. She “Oh, say, can you see, by the blood in the streets, this place doesn’t smile on you, colored child” as if speaking to the founding fathers, Washington, Adams, Hamilton etc., and more importantly to the present-day audience.  The three-time Grammy-winner continued:  “Whose blood built this land with sweat and their hands. But we’ll die in this place and your memory erased. Oh say, does this truth hold any weight? This is not the land of the free but the home of the slaves.”

Her words, commanding in delivery and tone, is perhaps a request for the nation to look honestly at itself. In true cultural-activist tradition, Scott was speaking to the Essence Fest

Jill Scott

crowd of mostly African-Americans who have lived-experience and understanding of her words.  Her blues-infused version of the anthem is appropriately contextual to give meaning, clarity, and empathetic-validation to a community who has endured centuries of societal-silence, systemic, and systematic oppression from Jim Crow to present-day anti-Affirmative Action campaigns, generational-poverty, and even barbaric practices within the criminal justice system.  Hence, where does one look for justice, liberty and freedom, which we also value as Canadians, if not within a song that stands to represent the collective-interest and aspirations of citizens?  

Thus, instead of chastising artists for figuratively taking a Kaepernick-knee, their actions are perhaps a plea aimed at stimulating much needed social-change.  Where better to start such conversations than between the lines of our respective national anthems? 

Maybe it’s time for both North American nations to see the urgency within the actions of these artists, and declare them to be noble gestures worthy of a Purple Heart medal. The time has come for these national anthems to truly and sincerely reflect our hopes and dreams in the most modern, meaningful and principled-manner possible.

Kirk Moss is an avid sports fan, arts admirer and cultural-traveller.