Singer subs lyrics in national anthem

July 2, 2008 8:39:18 PM PDT
When the audience rose for the national anthem before the mayor gave his annual state of the city address Tuesday in Denver, they were expecting to hear the familiar tune with lyrics by Francis Scott Key. Instead, jazz singer Rene Marie performed "Lift Every Voice," also known as the black national anthem, resulting in more than a few red glares from some angry and offended politicians.

She sang the song to the same tune as the "Star Spangled Banner" and those in attendance say they could not fully make out the words or do anything to stop her.

"I wanted to express how I felt about living in this country as a black woman," Marie told ABC News affiliate KMGH7.

"Art is supposed to make you think. I wanted to express how I felt, being a black woman living in this country," said Marie, a resident of nearby Broomfield, Colo.

After her performance, "people were mostly shocked," said city council president Michael Hancock, who introduced Marie and emceed the event.

"Afterwards, there was a cautious clap. You could see it in people's body language. People were taken aback. I was just thinking what's next; I've got to keep the program moving. In hindsight, perhaps the band should have played again and the national anthem sung again."

Hancock, who is black, said his office has received numerous angry e-mails and phone calls.

Mayor John Hickenlooper, who is white, called Marie's performance a "distraction" and said he was disappointed.

"As I listened to her sing, I assumed she would eventually move into the traditional 'Star Spangled Banner,'" Hickenlooper said in a statement. "I called her personally [Tuesday] afternoon to understand what happened. She explained her song was an artistic expression of her love for her country. She said she meant no disrespect of any kind and that her song was in no way intended to be a political statement. She apologized for any problems she may have created."

Marie, however, has yet to issue a public apology.

"An artist does not ask permission to express themselves artistically," Marie said. "You just do it and then you deal with it."

The state of the city address was no place for artistic expression, said city Councilman Charlie Brown, who is white.

"I thought it was disgraceful," he said. "We only have one national anthem. She did this for her own personal gain. It has nothing to do with artistic expression. I thought I should walk off, but I didn't. I wish I had."

Marie told KMGH7 that only her husband and mentor knew she planned to sing "Lift Every Voice." She said she was encouraged to sing the black national anthem in light of Sen. Barack Obama's upcoming visit to Denver in August, when he will attend the Democratic National Convention to accept his party's presidential nomination.

Marie's last two albums are entitled "Three Nooses Hanging" and "This Is Not a Protest Song."

"Lift Every Voice" was written by James Weldon Johnson and first performed in 1900 to commemorate Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

The lyrics of the first verse are as follows:

Lift every voice and sing

Till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listening skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun

Let us march on till victory is won.