Historical musicology is not my strong suit.
I have a tough time remembering dates and details, and as a non-linear thinker, I often feel like an awkward storyteller. For this reason, I should probably always carry with me some notes on my arrangement of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, a work that will be featured in LA Master Chorale’s upcoming “Wade in the Water” concert on April 30.
Controversial issues tend to surface with every performance, raising questions that include
- “Who should (or shouldn’t) sing this piece?”
- “To whom does it speak?”
- “For whom was it written?”
- “Shouldn’t we stand when we hear it?”
- “Does it even belong on the concert stage?”
The questions outline the impact of this song. Over the years, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing has gained such importance in the repertoire that it is commonly referred to as the “Black National Anthem”, making it doubly important to understand that the original hymn has a life that’s larger than any one setting, and a history that can only be understood in its own context. (For anyone who is interested, this simple Google search can get you started.)
But while historical musicology is not my strong suit, socio-theomusicology is where my mind and soul thrive. I could testify for days about how Lift Ev’ry Voice wasn’t written just to empower and/or encourage a group of people who are constantly oppressed and dehumanized. It is also a bold statement of present-day victory. The fact that this poetry even exists is a testament to the wisdom and resilience of Black Americans whose faith (rooted, for better or for worse, in Christianity) said that the time for rejoicing is now; the time of our triumph is now; that the price has been paid, death has been conquered, and while there will always be work to do, by God’s grace we are here NOW, and we should sing.
This work fills me with deep gratitude and humility, and I am extraordinarily honored that this incredibly prophetic and timely poetry was composed and embraced by my people, people who identified themselves as Negro. Lift Ev’ry Voice connects me to my roots, honors the present, and points toward the future. Yet it simultaneously connects my people to every other people on this planet, by speaking to our common struggle with brutality and injustice. Mostly, it speaks to the value of EVERY collective human voice that has ever been imprisoned, demoralized, persecuted, and/or murdered.
What an extraordinary gift was given to this country through this work from James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamund Johnson, two brilliant brothers whose heritage was Negro. THIS is why we proudly refer to this work as the Negro National Anthem – a stirring and timeless anthem for a nation comprised of all nations, written by Negroes – like me.