It wasn’t on last year’s music charts or “best of” lists but “The Star Spangled Banner” was the most important song of 2016. This inauspicious honor is attributable to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick whose quiet, principled disruption of the song’s performance set ablaze the sports industrial complex and nation, catalyzing an unparalleled level of discussion and debate. The song, penned in the 19th century and adopted by the United States federal government in 1931, is a constant in the life of the country’s residents. Even when singers ruin the tune or unintentionally butcher the anachronistic lyrics, most remain loyal to the performance. Our ability to convincingly portray citizenship depends upon it.
While much has been said and written about Kaepernick, it’s crucial to understand that his protest, like the national anthem, is powerful in part due to its repetition. The song’s systematic performance provides him regular opportunities for the spectacle of refusal. His perseverance is not a given, however; over the course of his 17-week season he decided whether to perfect or abandon his position. With every game open, he elected to kneel or stand and his choice necessarily highlights ours. We too have a choice to make — whether to praise the nation or reject its violences. Fourteen years ago I chose to refuse the coercive performance of loyalty to a nation at war, deciding to never again sing or stand for a country that silences the vulnerable and forces so many to their knees. It remains an unpopular decision and often brings with it derisive stares, comments or worse.
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This judgment is particular to the genre. As expressions of belonging, national anthems only work if the collective it is meant to represent participates, and that participation must be dramatic and unequivocal — collective standing and singing on command. National anthems require complete obedience from their singers. Consider the outrage over Marvin Gaye’s performance at the 1986 NBA All Star game in which he transformed “The Star Spangled Banner” into sounds worthy of a spin on your favorite quiet storm R&B program; or, more dramatically, the 2008 performance of the anthem by jazz singer Rene Marie in which she ingeniously combined the tune of the national anthem with the lyrics of the Black National Anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Gaye was criticized; Marie received death threats.
Audiences must comply with the anthemic protocol as well. In the wake of an Indian Supreme Court decision that cinemas must play the national anthem (“Jana Gana Mana”) before all screenings, 12 audience members of a film festival who refused to stand were arrested in December. While not singing and not standing are not (yet) criminal offenses in the US, audiences are, nonetheless, deputized to correct the wayward behavior of their fellows. The considerable scorn received by Kaepernick and others is indicative of what we have been trained to believe: that the anthem is sacred by virtue of its use as representation for a unified nation. Yet many know and experience otherwise and the visible divisibility that protests against the anthem illuminate critically implicate those most responsible for society’s structural divisions: the state and its agents (politicians, police, military, etc.).
National anthems not only reflect the cleavages between us, they also have been weaponized to insist upon and enforce them. On the night of November 8, 2016, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, two Muslim women wearing hijab were accosted by a white man in a train station. After approaching them, he pulled from his pocket a string, fashioned it into a noose, and said that it was intended for them. He followed his threat with a rendition of the Canadian national anthem, “O Canada.” Though aberrant, this man’s performance is ideologically aligned with the jingoism that undergirds the anthems of western nations, which are texts meant only for certain people and used to excuse incredible chauvinism. As songs intended to identify “us,” national anthems also construct “them.” They are inherently exclusive compositions that rehearse and reinvent division with each and every performance.
Kaepernick and many others know the fiction of unity in the “land of the free” and have responded accordingly. Revising or opting out of the performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” is an indictment and challenge to the coercion and vulnerabilities produced by US nationalism. We are experiencing now the logic of the anthem’s verse four, which demands “conquer we must, when our cause it is just.” This request for aggressive expansion and violence is a tailwind for the Trump administration, which has reinvented and capitalized on centuries-old mythologies of radical difference between “the brave” lionized in the anthem’s lyrics and those “hireling[s] and slave[s]” in verse three of whom we no longer sing. Yet they remain, informing and troubling the performances that boldly labor to disappear them.
Singers and listeners alike regularly struggle against this disappearance, even if subtly, and in the process they forestall the common sense of nationalism that insists that we were, are and always will be a triumphant whole. The anthem is the most important song of 2016 because in its indefatigability, it denies national progress narratives and exposes the mundane ways in which people rebel against them. In the simplicity of taking a knee, the possibility for a new nation was revealed and inspired other public acts in kind. This is a spark and a note toward the multitude of new compositions that do not sacrifice complexity for uniformity and are not satisfied with the nation as we already know it. In this perilous political present, singing and listening are tools; toward what ends remains our choice.